Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers (CD Review)
Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers
Robert Randolph, Aubrey Ghent, Darick Campbell, Chuck Campbell, Calvin Cook
Even though Robert Randolph’s name is writ large on this Concord Records debut studio album for the Slide Brothers: Aubrey Ghent, Darick Campbell, Chuck Campbell and Calvin Cooke, Randolph is technically not a member. That privilege is reserved for some members of the sacred steel community who’ve been toiling in and out of the church for decades and haven’t as yet had the national spotlight shown on them as brightly as it has lit up Randolph. He’s the producer guesting on 3 of the 11 cuts.
The Sacred Steel tradition started in the House Of God church in the’ 30s by guitarist Willie Eason, replacing the traditional church organ with a lap or pedal steel guitar. Although the sound stayed mostly in the church community, Eason did put out some gospel cuts on ’78s and toured with the Soul Stirrers, the group Sam Cooke came out of. Eason’s style was adapted and slicked up by Henry Nelson, who added a stirring undertone to the music by “voicing” lines strummed over the band, which came to be known as shout band music. He passed his skills along to his son Aubrey Ghent, who became a minister in the House of God Church. Ghent is the least known outside the Sacred Steel community but the most influential of all the participants. Ghent first got some recognition outside the church in ’92 when an employee with the Florida Folklife Department heard him and encouraged him to play festivals on a local, then international level. ’97’s Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus, recorded on Arhoolie Records, brought more attention to sacred steel music, with the Campbell Brothers following suit and finally Randolph joining in, mixing secular music with gospel bringing sacred steel into the mainstream.
The Slide Brothers features a great mix of secular and gospel music. The Campbell Brothers say because they grew up mimicking worshipers voices in church with their steel guitars, traditional blues sounded sloppy to their ears. So to clear it up, they rip out this version of the Allman’s “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin,’” steel strings standing in for vocal chords, steely souls screaming for mercy. It starts with a churchy riff and some gospel moans, but when the drums kick in you envision a muddy, outdoor worship service filled with sweaty, shirtless longhairs stomping joyously to the sacred steel blues.
George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is virtually unrecognizable. As performed by these guys, it’s a stirring hymn led by blind Boys of Alabama’s Jimmy Carter. “I’m talkin ‘ to ya lord,’” Carter bellows. “I really wanna see you,” he demands. Ghent steps in with a spoken word testimony to his God’s powers: “He woke me up this morning clothed in my right mind,” he testifies, punctuated by a lingering panther scream from Carter as the Campbells ‘ steels screech around him. If this stuff don’t move you, you’re already dead.
It just keeps getting better.“ Motherless Children” spanks Clapton’s version, making it want to hide in a corner. This is a high kickin’, throw your hands in the air and rejoice treatment, reinforced with jubilant Campbell steel.
Tampa Red’s ‘ “It Hurts Me Too,” made famous by Elmore James’ ’62 version, gets all three Campbell Brothers into the act, throwing more steel around than John Henry. Even though there are a trio of sliders zinging around like a flock of guided missiles, they all mange to stay out of each other’s way, emphasizing and underscoring the melody rather than blotting it out.
Aubrey Ghent shines on vocals and guitar on “No Cheap Seats in Heaven,” a rollicking slide-infested number that sounds like a churchier version of Ry Cooder from his Paradise And Lunch era. “Ain’t no cheap seats in heaven, no nose bleeds, no VIP,” Ghent declares, backing up his proclamation with a skillet full of slippery steel.
Despite Randolph and the Family Band’s impressive appearance on a funky version of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” that utilizes the bassline from Ettta Jame’s “Tell Mama,” Shemekia Copeland dominates this one, turning it from a dance floor rave into a brassy hymn of praise.
Praises are due Randolph for involving Ghent, a grossly underrated performer who has been overlooked when the sacred steel genre crossed over into secular music, as well as Calvin Cooke, well known in the sacred steel community but not as recognized as he should be outside it. The Campbell Brothers have had more exposure, playing their mix of secular and gospel in bars and at festivals for years, and are a riveting act in person with their boundless energy and enthusiasm and slamming, heartfelt delivery.
If you’re a newcomer to sacred steel, use this as a starting point to go back and investigate Ghent, Cooke and the Campbell’s back catalogs. If you’re already a fan, put this one into the front of your hymnbook. It’ll quickly become a daily habit you won’t want to break.