Before he learned how to play the pedal steel guitar as a kid, Robert Randolph was at the House of God Church in Orange, N.J., learning the uplifting powers of spirituality. It was the same church that taught him music through the church's sacred tradition of pedal steel players. Thus, music and healing would forever be tied together for Randolph.
He has soared to national prominence over the past four years after he formed the Family Band to take his music out of the church and into the live rock 'n' roll circuit in New York City. Some might remember him from his two electrifying performances at the Grammy Awards this year and in 2004. He calls his music "rockspel," a term given to him by singer-songwriter John Mayer. It is his rockspel that draws so many parallels to New Orleans music.
"I won't lie to you," Randolph says by phone. "If I could get $10 for every time somebody said I was from New Orleans or Memphis, you know, I wouldn't have to play music anymore." It could be his and his band members' tight musicianship, or their jazz- and funk-inspired improvisation during their live show, or it could be their soul and R&B influence that seems so similar to New Orleans music. Most of all, it's simply the emotions that Randolph's music evokes. "It's about the party," Randolph says of the similarities, "the uplifting vibe, everybody having a good time, dancing, forgetting about all of the problems. New Orleans music has gospel elements to it -- it's joyful sounds."
His first exposure to the New Orleans sound came when he saw Dirty Dozen Brass Band play a show in New York several years back. The experience, Randolph says, helped him see how music could cross into unexpected genres. "I was like, 'Wow, what the hell is this?" he says with a laugh. "It was like a rock 'n' roll show with horns. For me seeing this coming from the church, I thought, 'This is kind of religious. That's how it is in New Orleans.'"
He learned more about New Orleans music from the relationship that he has developed in recent years with New Orleans musicians such as Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and the Meters. "If we are touring the South and we have a day off, we are stopping in New Orleans," he says with fondness.
Randolph also speaks genuinely about the city and its musicians when he talks about when he first heard about Hurricane Katrina. "We were on tour with Carlos Santana at the time, and we just couldn't believe what we were seeing. It was just like, 'What is going on down there?!" he says. "My heart went out to everybody because we know so many people there, we've been there, you know, New Orleans has had so much of an impact on our career."
Randolph has spent most of the past six months with the Family Band recording their new album, Color Blind (Warner Bros.), their sophomore release, which is to be released some time early this summer. He has enlisted the help of such notable names like Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews, Steven Tyler, and Eric Clapton in addition to producer (and former New Orleans resident/Kingsway Studio head) Daniel Lanois. Randolph says that while some collaborations worked better than others, he learned so much from his experience with such established musicians.
Most importantly, Randolph says he learned that he will be forever judged by his albums. "Once you make a record and its out ... it's out," he laughs.
While he talks about the album with enthusiasm, he still bubbles with excitement at the opportunity to get back to playing shows, especially in New Orleans. "I'm sure it's going to be the best musical event ever," says Randolph of the two festival weekends. "This will top anything just because the feeling that you all have been going through down there. Neighborhoods have been beat down, and with everything that's happened, everybody's looking to come have a great time."
For those who haven't seen a Robert Randolph & the Family Band show, it is a rollicking wave of energy that builds layer upon layer of crowd excitement, not unlike the way a preacher and a gospel choir whip a congregation into a frenzy. As Randolph puts it, "It takes you higher, man."
As for his Jazz Fest set, Randolph promises, "We're going to try and give them great musical relief when we get down there."
- Danny Clinch
- Robert Randolph: "New Orleans has had so much of an impact on our career."