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Sacred Steel: Rev. Utah Smith, et al. and The Slide Brothers


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The "Sacred Steel" tradition born in the House of God Church some 80 years ago employed the pedal steel and lap steel guitars as the centerpiece of their message. The steel guitars, long an eloquent staple of country and western music are used to a much grittier effect in this largely African-American mode of worship.

In the last decade the Sacred Steel tradition has been revitalized and moved into the mainstream by steel-guitarist Robert Randolph, who has made a name for himself with his family on a number of notable releases. Two recent Sacred Steel sightings illustrate the state of the genre between decades 1944 and 1964 and firmly in the 21st Century.

Rev. Utah Smith & Rev. Lonnie Farris
Slide Guitar Gospel 1944—1964: The Complete Recordings of Rev. Utah Smith and Rev. Lonnie Farris
Document Records

To be rigorously correct, Rev. Lonnie Farris is the only slide guitarist here, but this can be forgiven. The Rev. Utah Smith was an electric guitar force of nature who released three influential singles between 1944 and 1953 that have loomed large recently in gospel compilations. Very little is known of Smith except that he preached for 30 years at the Church of God in Christ in New Orleans and that he died and was buried in an unmarked grave in 1965. More is known of Robert Johnson than Utah Smith and that says a lot about the mystery surrounding Smith.

The three versions of "Two Wings" included here, Smith's signature tune, reveal a spiritual inspiration somewhere deep-fried sanctified and radioactive apoplexy. Smith's guitar playing reveals great invention, wildly overdriven in tone and performance. His voice is not unlike the Old-Testament roar one would expect from the troubled mystics Ezekiel or Daniel in his cups. His roar is fevered and fervent, like that of Blind Willie Johnson thirty years before. One need not be a believer to know that Smith is one.

The remainder of the disc is populated with recordings by the Rev. Lonnie Farris, who indeed played a lap steel guitar, one much more in the original intricate Hawaiian vein of performance than that of the blues, where slide guitar playing would gain a major foothold in its development. His playing is much more about single note playing than it is about the slash and burn perfected by Elmore James. Farris' playing is delicate and reverent, without the delirium of Utah Smith. Farris' pieces with singer Thelma William are inspired and beautifully understated. The original release of this recording predates Michael McGonagel's splendid compilations, Various Artists: Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (Tompkins Square, 2010) and Various Artists: This May Be My Last Time Singing—Raw African-American Gospel On 45rpm 1957-1982 (Tompkins Square, 2011).

The Slide Brothers
Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers
Concord Records

Who are the "Slide Brothers?" They are Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent, all veteran worshipers from the Church of the Living God, a hotbed of the sacred steel tradition since its introduction in the House of God Church 80 years ago. Steel guitarist Robert Randolph brought the Brothers together in the wake of his own sacred steel resurgence over the past decade, to produce this mix of the sacred and secular aimed at increasing the style's fanbase. Randolph and the Brothers are largely successful.

A ticky technical note: these musicians are presented as "slide guitar players," that they are, but in name only. This is not the slide guitar of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Duane Allman, Lowell George, Sonny Landreth or Derek Trucks. This is a species more akin to Herbert Stabler, Don Helms, David Lindley, Daniel Lanois and Ben Harper were they all Southern fried in Crisco and served with raw onions. This is earth music, the most basic, fecund sound electrically produced. To get a shopping dose of exactly this, cue up "Wade in the Water." This old gospel tune features the ferocious playing of brothers Chuck and Darick Campbell, backed on guitar by Phil Campbell.

The sacred songs ("My Sweet Lord," "Praise You") seethe with passion while the secular blues (the Allman Brother's "Don't Keep Me Wonderin,'" "It Hurts Me Too") are molten slabs of the machine that has run rock music for greater than a half century. This is "wall-of- sound" music that carries with it a momentum that lays waste...to modern imitation.

Tracks and Personnel

Slide Guitar Gospel 1944—1964: The Complete Recordings of Rev. Utah Smith and Rev. Lonnie Farris

Tracks: Rev. Utah Smith: I Want Two Wings; God`s Mighty Hand; Two Wings; Take A Trip; I Got Two Wings; Glory To Jesus, I`M Free. Rev. Lonnie Farris & The Gospel Flames: Walk To Thee; Soldiers Of The Cross; What Mother Can Do?; Golden Street. Rev. Le Vol Franklin (With Rev. Lonnie Farris, Hawaiian Guitar): A Closer Walk To Thee; It`S A Blessing To Call His Name. Rev. Lonnie Farris: Peace In The Valley; I`m So Happy And Free The Lord Save Me. Rev. Elliot Keyes (With Rev. Lonnie Farris, Hawaiian Guitar): They Are Ringing Them Bells; Walk Around. Thelma Williams (With Rev. Lonnie Farris, Hawaiian Guitar): In Your Kingdom; In That Clover Field. Rev. Lonnie Farris: A Night At The House Of Prayer; Wondering Child Mother Is Dead; His Love; The Holy Spirit.

Personnel: Rev. Utah Smith: guitar, vocals; Rev. Lonnie Farris: lap steel guitar, vocals; other musicians unidentified.

Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers

Track Listing: Don't Keep Me Wonderin'; My Sweet Lord; Sunday School Blues; Wade The Water; Praise You; It Hurts Me Too; Catch that Train; Motherless Children; Help Me Make It Through; The Sky Is Crying; No Cheap Seats in Heaven.

Personnel: Robert Randolph: steel guitar (5, 10), guitar (3), ; Calvin Cook: vocals (1, 6, 7, 9, 10), steel guitar (3, 9); Chuck Campbell: steel guitar (1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10); Darick Campbell: lap steel guitar (1, 2, 4, 6, 8); Phil Campbell: guitar (1, 2, 4, 6, 8); Orlando Wright: bass (1, 2, 4, 6, 8); Carlton Campbell: drums (1, 2, 4, 6, 8), piano (6); Marty Sammon: organ (1, 2, 4, 8); Danyel Morgan: bass (3, 5, 11); Marcus Randolph: drums (3, 5, 11), steel guitar (5), Dobro (5); Jason Crosby: organ (3, 5), piano (5); Shemekia Copland: vocals (5); Dres Ramsey: vocals (8); Shannon Sanders: vocals (8); Aubry Ghent: vocals, steel guitar (11); Lori Chent; background vocals (11); Drew Shannon: vocals (11).

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