music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Robert Randolph & The Family Band

February 2, 2019 | 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.
2007’s Got Soul didn’t do much to change the overall arc of the band, but it’s another solid album with good songs. The band got a little mainstream recognition 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.


Northwest String Summit announce lineup
The annual Northwest String Summit will take place from July 18-21 at Horning’s Hideout. The festival will feature Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (not much of a string band, but still cool), The Lil’ Smokies, The Shook Twins, and many other great acts.

DelFest adds artists
DelFest added another set of artists to their lineup. Yonder Mountain String Band, Tyler Childers, Sam Bush Band, Keller William’s Pettygrass, The SteelDrivers, The Larry Keel Experience, and more will join an already pretty stacked lineup featuring Del McCoury, The String Cheese Incident, Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, and others.

Yonder Mountain String Band add dates
YMSB continue to add to their spring tour. Along with festival dates the band will be on the road from at least March-early April with a variety of openers.

March 7 Iowa City, IA – Blue Moose Tap House $
March 8 Minneapolis, MN – First Ave & 7th $
March 9 Madison, WI – The Sylvee $
March 10 Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall %
March 13 Cincinnati, OH – 20th Century Theater %
March 14 Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue Theatre %
March 15 Cleveland, OH – House of Blues %
March 16 State College, PA – State Theatre %
March 17 Charleston, WV – Mountain Stage Radio Show %
March 27 Pensacola, FL – Vinyl Music Hall #
March 28 New Orleans, LA – Tipitina’s #
March 29 Austin, TX – Historic Scoot Inn #
March 30 Dallas, TX – Granada Theater #
April 2 Santa Fe, NM – Meow Wolf Santa Fe #
April 4 Flagstaff, AZ – Orpheum Theater #
April 5 Los Angeles, CA – Troubadour #
April 6 Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up #
April 7 Santa Barbara, CA – Soho #

$ with Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Fireside Collective
% with Fireside Collective
# with Dangermuffin

Gov’t Mule heading to Europe
Gov’t Mule will be heading to Europe for a 2 week run starting at the end of May. About half of their dates will be in the UK with the other half on the continent.

May 27 Glasgow, UK—O2 Academy
May 28 Newcastle, UK—Boiler Shop
May 29 Leeds, UK—O2 Academy
May 31 Birmingham, UK—Town Hall
June 1 London, UK—O2 Forum Kentish Town
June 2 Manchester, UK—Academy 2
June 4 Paris, France—La Cigale
June 5 Brussels, Belgium—AB
June 6 Frankfurt, Germany—Batschkapp
June 8 Raalte, Netherlands—Ribs & Blues
June 9 Alkmaar, Netherlands—Victorie


Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Riviera Maya
February 15-17
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Phish in Riviera Maya
February 21-23
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 22-24
Steamboat Springs, CO
Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Billy Strings, The California Honeydrops, Della Mae with Bonnie Paine, Jeff Austin Band, The Shook Twins

Suwannee Spring Reunion
March 21-24
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel Experience, John Stickley Trio

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

May 16-18
Marvin’s Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (x5), Aqueous, Litz, Mungion, Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

River City Bluegrass Festival
May 17-18
Chesterfield Amphitheatre
Chesterfield, MO
Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers, Jeff Austin Band

May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Tyler Childers, The Travelin’ McCourys, Sam Bush Band, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Big Gigantic, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Trampled by Turtles, Blues Traveler, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Spafford, ALO

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI

June 13-16
Manchester, TN
Phish, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, GRiZ, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Jim James, Trampled By Turtles, The Wood Brothers, Shovels & Rope, The Record Company

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20-23
Telluride, CO
Brandi Carlisle, Sam Bush Band, Jim James, Greensky Bluegrass, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon: Stories from the Living Room, Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Smoky Run Music Festival
June 28-30
Butler, OH
Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band present Grateful Ball, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY

High Sierra
July 4-7
Quincy, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, ALO, Marcus King Band

Camp Bisco
July 18-20
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA

Northwest String Summit
July 18-21
Horning’s Hideout
North Plains, OR
Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles, The Infamous Stringduster, Fruition, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Shook Twins, Ghost Light, The Lil’ Smokies

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Peach Music Festival
July 25-28
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA
Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio Band, The String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, moe., Greensky Bluegrass, Lotus, Lettuce, Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, Allman Betts Band, Billy Strings

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA


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!