music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Robert Randolph & The Family Band

April 22, 2017 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

Steel guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph and his Family Band’s rise to prominence didn’t come from the typical schedule of incessant recording and touring that most jam bands follow. Robert Randolph, for all of his talent, wasn’t even aware of guitar greats like Buddy Guy or Muddy Waters as a teenager. His entire musical knowledge came from his church, a House of God church in New Jersey. Raised as the son of both a minister and a deacon, most of Randolph’s early life was spent in the church. However, for Randolph, church music didn’t mean organs and old ladies in the choir. Although it’s a small denomination, the House of God churches had a musical tradition for Randolph to latch onto, a tradition known as Sacred Steel.
The pedal steel guitar, which is the lynchpin of Sacred Steel music, rose to prominence in House of God churches in the 30’s. The black Pentecostal churches of this time couldn’t afford costly organs, and the pedal steel guitar was introduced as a replacement instrument. While the instrument itself had been used primarily in Hawaiian and country music, the way that the House of God churches used it bore little resemblance to those other traditions. The energy that this instrument produced was much closer to the high-energy services of the Pentecostal churches, and was quickly accepted as part of their worship. This type of music seldom left the church, however. True to the name “Sacred Steel,” church elders believed that the only appropriate place for this sacred music was in the church. Those who didn’t frown on playing the music outside of the church still believed that the primary purpose for the music should be evangelism. Few recordings were made of Sacred Steel playing, and only a handful of practitioners played outside of church events.
Sacred Steel was “discovered” in 1992 by Florida musicologist Robert Stone. He began recording the music in the churches. In 1995, he put out the first widely released recording of Sacred Steel music, Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida. Stone’s recordings of Sacred Steel music struck a chord not only with lovers of gospel and church music, but many guitar music aficionados across the globe.
About the time Stone was “discovering” Sacred Steel music, a Robert Randolph was growing up in urban New Jersey. Randolph didn’t just grow up in the church; he also grew up on the streets. He often skipped school and he dealt drugs for a short time. He maintained his relationship with his church, however, and began drumming in the youth choir. The shooting death of a close friend that brought Randolph seriously back into the church, and he left behind the street side of his life for good. He was given a steel guitar, and, at 17, he began playing in earnest. It was at this time that a friend gave him a Stevie Ray Vaughn tape.
This was the first secular music that Randolphhad heard. He was immediately drawn to Vaughn’s mixture of the sacred and the secular. He sought out other musical styles, from guitar masters like Hendrix and Clapton to funk and rap. Randolph worked to refine his style to include all of these different elements, while maintaining the sound that he grew up with. He became so proficient with the instrument that he was part of the first Sacred Steel convention in 2000. It was at the convention that Randolph made his recording debut, as a part of Sacred Steel—Live!, which was a collection of recordings made at the convention.
It was also at this event that Randolph would make his initial contacts in the secular music world. Randolph was introduced to John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood. Medeski invited Randolph to play in a new group that he was forming with members of the North Mississippi All-Stars. The Word released their self-titled album in 2001, and subsequently toured. Robert Randolph and the Family Band began their first non-church tour at this time, opening for the North Mississippi All-Stars, and Randolph would join All-Stars members and Medeski to close out the shows as The Word.
The band rose in popularity extremely quickly. Robert Randolph and the Family Band would release their first album, Live at the Wetlands in 2002. They also played the inaugural Bonnaroo Music Festival that year. Their high-energy performances immediately endeared them to crowds. Randolph wasn’t afraid to include crowd members in his performances, often passing the microphone to audience members to sing, inviting them to dance on stage, or even bringing audience members on stage to play guitar. He recorded a theme song for NBA telecasts in 2002, and performed at the 2003 Grammy Awards with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, and OutKast. Also in 2003, Rolling Stone listed Randolph as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, despite the fact that he had yet to record a studio album.
That changed in 2004 with the release of Unclassified. The album was a success for the band, and they continued their rigorous tour schedule. Their headlining shows moved from clubs to theatres, and they continued to open for a variety of bands. They collaborated with O.A.R. on a cover of Led Zepplin’s “Fool in the Rain,” and went on tour with the Dave Matthews Band. Randolph would often join DMB on stage for performances of “Louisiana Bayou” and “All Along the Watchtower.” He also went on tour with guitar legend Eric Clapton, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band are featured as part of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD.
Despite their success, the band wasn’t entirely happy with Unclassified. The band had focused on capturing sound and energy of their live performances, but had spent little time focused on songwriting. The band took the advice of mentors such as Clapton, Matthews, Steven Tyler, and Carlos Santana and decided to focus on harnessing that live energy as a part of great songs. They brought in a variety of outside songwriters to collaborate with, and the result was 2006’s Colorblind. The album crossed a variety of genres, and included both high-energy rockers and mellow ballads. The album includes guests such as Dave Matthews and LeRoi Moore on “Love Is The Only Way” and Eric Clapton on a cover of The Byrds “Jesus Is Just Alright.”
The band continued their pattern of taking a few years to tour between albums, but their 2010 release We Walk This Road was another success for them. This album saw the band strongly grounded in their gospel roots while still bringing their tremendous energy to the music. T-Bone Burnett produced the album, and his influence can be felt throughout. The band also included multiple cover songs and guests on the album. 2013’s Lickety Split was in the same vein, although it included fewer covers and guest.
The recently released Got Soul doesn’t do much to change the overall arc of the band, but it’s another solid album with good songs. The band has the potential to go mainstream with “Love Do What It Do,” a song recorded with Darius Rucker. The album features the band doing some of their best studio work, but the way to experience Robert Randolph continues to be through a live show. The band has continued to be a solid touring band, headlining theatres and playing festivals around the country.

Dark Star Jubilee addition
Dark Star Jubilee added Railroad Earth to their lineup this week. The Memorial Day weekend festival already features 3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Keller Williams, Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Tuna, TAUK, and many other great acts.

Yonder Mountain String Band announce dates
The Yonder Mountain String Band announced a good chunk of their summer run this week. The dates take the band up to their Northwest String Summit in July.

June 14-18 Telluride, CO—Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20 Omaha, NE—The Waiting Room
June 22 Springfield, MO—Gillioz Theatre
June 23 Owensboro, KY—Romp Festival
June 27 Portsmouth, NH—Prescott Park
June 28 Lafayette, NY—Beak and Skiff
June 30 Waitsfield, VT—Frendly Gathering
July 1 Jim Thorpe, PA—Penn’s Peak
July 3 Charlotte, NC—U.S. National Whitewater Rafting Center
July 6 Columbus, OH—The A&R Music Bar
July 7 Nashville, TN—Ryman Auditorium
July 8 Black Mountain, NC—Pisgah Brewing Company
July 9 Wilmington, NC—Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
July 13-16 North Plains, OR—Northwest String Summit

Wanee Festival
April 20-22
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Bob Weir, Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Leftover Salmon, Blackberry Smoke, Matisyahu, JJ Grey & Mofro

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 21-23
Centennial Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Ween, moe., Lettuce, Slightly Stoopid, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Anders Osborne, Dark Star Orchestra, Twiddle

Summer Camp
May 25-28
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Trey Anastasio Band, Primus, Gov’t Mule, The Disco Biscuits, Yonder Mountain String Band, Mike Gordon, EOTO, The Floozies, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller Williams KWahtro, The Wood Brothers, The Motet, TAUK, Twiddle, The Werks

May 25-28
Cumberland, MD
The Travelin’ McCoury’s featuring Dierks Bentley, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Bela Fleck & Chris Thile, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Jeff Austin Band

Dark Star Jubilee
May 26-28
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
Dark Star Orchestra (x3), Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Hot Tuna (acoustic and electric), Keller Williams and KWhatro, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Revival Music Festival
May 26-28
Harmony Park
Geneva, MN
Galactic, Yonder Mountain String Band, Turkuaz, Antibalas, Big Something, The Hip Abduction, The Main Squeeze, Aqueous

Nelsonville Music Festival
June 1-4
Nelsonville, OH
Ween, Emmylou Harris, Rodriguez, Son Volt, Sara Watkins, Parquet Courts

Mountain Music Festival
June 1-3
Wonderland Mountain
New River Gorge, WV
Umphrey’s McGee, The Revivalists, Twiddle, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Big Something, Spiritual Rez, The Southern Belles

June 8-11
Manchester, TN
U2, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, Big Gigantic, Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, Turkuaz, Twiddle

Disc Jam
June 8-11
Stephentown, NY
Break Science Live Band, Dopapod, Turkuaz, The Motet, Manic Focus, TAUK, Electric Beethoven, Aqueous, Consider the Source

4 Peaks Music Festival
June 15-18
Bend, OR
Moe., Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Poor Man’s Whiskey, Moonalice

Mountain Jam
June 16-18
Hunter Mountain, NY
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The String Cheese Incident, Steve Miller Band, Peter Frampton, Gary Clark Jr., Michael Franti & Spearhead, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Elephant Revival, Shovels & Rope, The Revivalists, The Infamous Stringdusters

Electric Forest I
June 22-25
Rothbury, MI
The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, My Morning Jacket, The Revivalists, Lotus, Big Gigantic, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Matisyahu, The Motet

Electric Forest II
June 29-July 2
Rothbury, MI
The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lotus, Big Gigantic, Nahko & Medicine for the People, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Matisyahu, The Motet

Friendly Gathering
June 29-July 1
Waitsfield, VT
Twiddle, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Turkuaz, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Moon Hooch

High Sierra
June 29-July 2
Quincy, CA
Trey Anastasio Band, Ween, Galactic, Mike Gordon, Fruition

June 30-July 2
Turin, NY
Moe., Blackberry Smoke, Fishbone, Railroad Earth, Ryan Montbleau, Twiddle, Floodwood, Kung Fu

Camp Bisco
July 13-15
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA
The Disco Biscuits (6 sets), Bassnectar, GRiZ, Pretty Lights, Lotus, Twidle, Turkuaz, Electric Beethoven, Break Science, Beats Antique, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Werks

Northwest String Summit
July 13-16
Horning’s Hideout
North Plains, OR
Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Del McCoury Band, JJ Grey & Mofro, Elephant Revival, Fruition, Turkuaz,

Levitate Music & Arts Fest
July 8-9
Marshfield, MA
Dispatch, Umphrey’s McGee, Ziggy Marley, Lake Street Drive, The Revivalists, Twiddle, JJ Grey & Mofro, Rubblebucket

Deep Roots Mountain Revival
July 20-22
Marvins Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Brandi Carlile, Lettuce, Yonder Mountain String Band, Dr. Dog, The Motet, JJ Grey & Mofro, Moon Taxi, White Denim, TAUK

Floydfest 17: Freedom
July 26-30
Floyd, VA
Michael Franti & Spearhead, St. Paul & Broken Bones, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Shovels & Rope, Turkuaz, TUAK, Fruition

Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival
August 11-13
Alta, WY
The Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Del McCoury Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

August 18-20
Wellston, MI
Greensky Bluegrass, Sam Bush Band, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Fruition, Joshua Davis, Larry Keel Experience, Billy Strings, The Accidentals, The Crane Wives

August 24-27
Arrington, VA
The Avett Brothers, Phil Lesh & Friends, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, John Fogerty, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, moe, Greensky Bluegrass, John Butler Trio, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, TAUK

Hillberry Music Festival
October 12-15
Eureka Springs, AR
Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Dumpstaphunk, Dirtfoot

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!