The Word: The Word

C. Michael Bailey By

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Does the listener want something a little bit different? Well, Brother, here it is.

Sacred Steel is a brand of gospel music played on a pedal steel guitar. It is a little known musical tradition that had its beginnings in the 1930s in the Church of God, an African-American Pentecostal denomination, found in Jamaica and the United States. One of the current master craftsmen of this style is 25-year-old Robert Randolph, who has been playing in the Maplewood, New Jersey House of God for the past seven years.

After being heard on the Arhoolie release Sacred Steel by North Mississippi All-stars guitarist Luther Dickinson, Randolph was tapped to enter Medeski, Martin, and Wood's Shacklyn Studios in Brooklyn with the NMA and Medeski and The Word was born. The result is one of the most unique and enjoyable listening experiences of recent memory. This is a genre-breaking, tradition-smashing, new tradition-building collection of spirituals and originals. The music is decidedly steeps in the blues as is all gospel music. But this is music of worship and praise, of sweaty country churches on humid Sunday Mornings in the late Spring. It is happy music; it is joyful music.

Better clear up one thing. The pedal steel guitar style here is not the slick Country and Western flavor heard on countless mediocre modern country recordings. It is more in keeping with the lap steel guitar playing of say, a David Lindley. Randolph's style emulates a very sophisticated slide guitar. His single note playing, particularly on "Joyful Sounds" is very impressive, as well as on "Call Him By His Name."

The opening two pieces, "Joyful Sounds" and "Call Him By His Name" were written by the late Glenn Lee. These are typical of the Sacred Steel Tradition— very dramatic as is "Blood On That Rock" and "Without God." The former of these begins as a drum and fife piece and transmogrifies into a bit of sampling wizardry a la Mr. Medeski. For his part, Medeski provides two very Allmanesque raves, "Waiting On My Wings" and "Untitled." The disc centerpieces are the spirituals "At the Cross" and "I'll Fly Away." "I Shall Not Be Moved" is soundtrack quality and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" is this band's answer to "When the Levee Breaks." Not exactly gospel, not exactly blues, not rock, this is "Roots" music that fits in with the renewed interest in traditional American music brought on by the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou," if only on the periphery.

The recording year is growing nigh and I am filling my best releases list quickly. This disc is there.

Track Listing: Joyful Sounds; Call Him By His Name; Blood On That Rock; Without God; Waiting On My Wings; At The Cross; I'll Fly Away; I Shall Not Be Moved; Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning; Untitled (Total Time: 48:12).

Personnel: Robert Randolph: Pedal Steel Guitar; John Medeski: Keyboards; Luther Dickinson; Cody Dickinson: Drums; Chris Chew: Bass.

Title: The Word | Year Released: 2001


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