Sacred Steel Convention – Bush Auditorium (Winter Park, FL)
The first annual Sacred Steel Convention at Rollins College was a two-day affair filled with a powerful sense of family and tradition. Since this event took place outside the confines of the church environment, the steel players were free to focus on the history and the future of their craft. Not only were modern Arhoolie Records mainstays such as the Campbell Brothers in attendance, but the event was also graced by the presence of Sacred Steel forefather Willie Eason.
Aside from a short slide presentation and a ceremony to honor Eason and fellow forefather Henry Nelson (not in attendance because of a recent stroke), Friday’s proceedings were the loosest. As the players arrived from around the country, the auditorium was filled with warm greetings and hugs. Soon, a jam session began providing the audience with exhilarating sounds driven by some friendly competition.
Some steel players, such as Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard, brought musicians with them from home. The Campbell Brothers had the same steady unit of Chuck on pedal, Darick on lap, Phil on rhythm guitar, and Phil’s 15-year-old son Carlton on drums. However, most of the others made do with whoever wanted to lend a hand. Through the unstructured apprenticeship of the Sacred Steel tradition, many players have gotten their start on drums before moving through the hierarchy to the lead steel position. This made the music from the informal jam far better than expected, as all of the musicians brought great touch and soul to whatever instrument they were playing.
After a morning workshop Saturday, there were short showcases by younger players. The veteran leadership of Cooke, who repeated a powerful performance of “Glory, Glory” from Friday’s jam, and Aubrey Ghent anchored the proceedings. In between, fine sets were delivered by Jesse Green, Donte Herman, Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett, Daryl Blue, and Elton Noble. Dan Tyack, formerly with Asleep At The Wheel, deserves mention for both his steel playing and his attendance, which showed Sacred Steel’s connection to a broader musical community.
The convention concluded Saturday night with a formal concert. Beard, perhaps the most reserved player, led off with some melodic hymns and built up to “The Train”. Lonnie Bennett followed with a fine set drawing more overtly from secular music, especially when he incorporated the turnaround from “Come Together” in his arrangement of an old hymn.
Glenn Lee and his cadre of brothers performed the most rehearsed set of the night. Lee has had significant music training, and it showed. His band was extremely tight and his original gospel songs were musically diverse, drawing on country, blues, and funk.
The youthful Robert Randolph came next and helped put the show into another gear with his flashy technique. Accompanied by his cousin Ricky Fowler on vocals, Randolph blazed through the uptempo “I Know A Man” and pulsated a strong groove behind “I Feel Like Pressing On My Way”.
Cooke then continued his brilliance from Friday night and Saturday afternoon with a top-notch performance. Cooke, who hails from Detroit, has an urban blues feel to his music that distinguished him from the rest of the players.
Next came a surprise performance by Eason. Although recovering from a recent heart bypass operation, the 79-year-old gave the audience a special glimpse of his “talking guitar” style that helped start everything back in the late 1930s.
The evening concluded with longer sets by Ghent and the Campbell Brothers. Ghent, the son of Henry Nelson, adds to his performance by playing the steel while standing, which allows him to sing, preach and move around. Ghent and his wife also sing together in soulful harmonies that echo the classic sounds of the Consolers, a fine husband-and-wife duo from gospel’s past.
After traveling the world playing Sacred Steel, the Campbell Brothers have developed into an extraordinary unit. Chuck, Darick and Phil are all formidable individually, but when joined by singer Katie Jackson they can tear the house down. They sparkled in everything they played, from the slow intensity of “Amazing Grace” to the grand finale “Jump For Joy”.
The Sacred Steel Convention was special in many ways. For the players, it provided a chance to share a sense of community and brotherhood. Those in the audience heard powerful, unique music. For fans not there, Arhoolie ran tape, so many more may soon be able to hear what only a few hundred got to witness.