Robert Randolph – Heart of steel
Robert Randolph is perched on the edge of the stage at St. Louis nightclub Mississippi Nights, so close to the crowd down front that at any minute the unruly throng might reach up and pull him in, along with his custom-made 13-string steel guitar. Should Randolph topple, however, there are plenty of outstretched arms to catch him.
Is there such a thing as stage diving in gospel music?
If not, it may fall to Randolph, the 25-year-old wunderkind, to introduce the practice. He’s already brought the decades-old House of God Pentecostal Church tradition known as “sacred steel” — in which services are driven to sweaty, shouting, stomping ecstasy by a steel-guitar-led combo — into the 21st century (by mixing it with rock and blues) and into the secular world (by taking it to clubs such as the Nights).
Randolph, dressed more like a hip-hop star than a gospel performer, with a football jersey, skull cap, and sneaks, is a blur of activity at his instrument, leaning into it and wringing as much expression as possible out of every note, occasionally grabbing the mike and exhorting the crowd to “press on” through difficult times, or asserting that all of us need more love in our lives right now. At one point, the spirit — or maybe simple showmanship — moves him to stand and leap straight into the air; he lands nimbly on the folding chair he’d been sitting on an instant before. No mean feat for a big man.
His set list is surprisingly eclectic. He plays tracks from his jam-filled debut disc Live At The Wetlands and previews several songs from his new album Unclassified (released in August by Dare/Warner Bros.). There’s a down and dirty (but not profane) version of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and brief nods to classic-rock guitar riffs, including Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. There’s even a dip or two into saccharine pop — Steve Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. In Randolph’s world, just about everything is fair game.
Two and a half hours after he began, Randolph leaves the stage at last, having preached to the choir, as it were, and likely winning a few new converts as well — to his music, if not necessarily his faith.
A few weeks and a quick tour opening for the Dave Matthews Band later, Randolph is back at his New Jersey home trying to work in some doctor and dentist appointments between stints on the road.
“I’ve got some wisdom teeth that need to be pulled at some point,” he says with a groan. “When you’re on the road, you don’t get a chance to ever do that stuff. In the last two years, I’ve been home maybe 60 days. We’re going back out tomorrow.”
For Randolph, the road goes on forever, or at least it has seemed to since he released Live At The Wetlands in 2001. He’s toured relentlessly, on his own and as an opening act for artists such as Matthews, the Derek Trucks Band, Victor Wooten, Soulive, and others.
Unclassified, his first studio album, finds Randolph and the Family Band — cousins Danyel Morgan on bass and Marcus Randolph on drums, and “honorary cousin” John Ginty on keyboards — reigning in the jams in favor of a more song-oriented approach. Randolph sings as well, something he admits intimidated him initially.
“It was kinda like that at first, but not really, because that’s what all artists gotta do somewhere somehow — you gotta learn how to do something else,” he says. “Even for Danyel, who’s been singing since he was young — he’s always sang high falsetto. For him to make the transition to singing some songs in a lower register and doing backgrounds, it was challenging for us all.”