Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers

Ray Charles was one of the first people to take gospel music and turn it into secular (or “Devil’s”) music, ultimately changing the course of popular American music. Aretha Franklin found similar success taking the skills she learned and honed in church and bringing them to mainstream music. Though not reaching the superstardom of those two artists, Robert Randolph has taken the style of music that he learned in church, turned it secular, and has become successful in his own right. Yet the difference between him and many other gospel-turned-secular artists is that Randolph is not known for his voice, but for his pedal steel guitar playing.

Robert Randolph grew up going to a House of God Church in Orange, NJ. This Christian denomination is known for having a different style of gospel music than most churches. In House of God churches the lead instrument is a pedal steel or lap steel guitar, and many of their songs are instrumental, with the guitars “singing” praise to the Lord. Thus, this style of music is known as Sacred Steel.

The genre was more or less unknown to people outside of church members, until the late 1990s when Arhoolie Records released a handful of albums by Sacred Steel artists. Yet it was the 1999 album Sacred Steel Live!, which was a collection of live congregational MI0003482996recordings, that would be the game changer. The album found its way to the hands of the members of North Mississippi Allstars (who were already fans of the genre) who in turn showed it to John Medeski. Though the album mainly featured the Campbell Brothers, it was the playing of a young Robert Randolph that caught their ear. The four men got in contact with the prodigy and soon formed The Word, releasing their eponymous album in 2001, an all-instrumental gospel album. Though the album was critically acclaimed, it was the band’s live shows that began getting people’s attention, particularly the fiery playing and stage presence of Randolph. This in turn led to Randolph forming his own band, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, becoming a well known and respected musician (he’s been featured several times on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival).

Having solidified his place in the music industry, Randolph has decided to recognize his musical mentors, showcasing them on the album Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers. The Slide Brothers are Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Chuck and Darick Campbell (of the Campbell Brothers), all Sacred Steel icons. Each man is a beast on the steel guitar (particularly Chuck Campbell), with Cooke and Ghent being fantastic singers as well.

The album is a mix of secular covers (though with religious overtones), traditionals, and straight up gospel tunes, and every track has outstanding musicianship and killer guitar work. The wide range of extremely well-done covers include The Allman Brothers’Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord” (though omitting all Hare Krishna references), Fatboy Slim‘s “Praise You,” and Elmore James‘ “It Hurts Me Too” and “The Sky Is Crying,” as well as Eric Clapton‘s version of the traditional “Motherless Children.” The blending of secular and gospel traditions creates a unique celebration of music, while also showing off the talents of some great, largely unknown musicians.

Though billed as a four man Sacred Steel supergroup, there is not one song on the album that features all four Slide Brothers at the same time. The closest they come is on three tracks, where three of the Brothers are performing, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” “My Sweet Lord,” and “It Hurts Me Too.” However, all three of these songs feature Chuck and Darick Campbell on steel guitar, with either Ghent or Cooke on vocals. Those two do play together on “Sunday School Blues” and “Catch That Train,” but it’s a bit disappointing to not have all four (or five if you include Randolph) playing at the same time on even one single track.

Another interesting aspect of this album is that there is a rotating group of backing musicians throughout. Five of the eleven songs feature The Campbell Brothers as the backing band (who are a fantastic group in their own right), while three others feature The Family Band (one of which has none of The Slide Brothers, “Praise You”). Though this doesn’t take away from high quality of musicianship that engulfs the entire album, it is just an interesting note that shows that this album is more of a collaboration of Sacred Steel icons rather than an endeavor by a supergroup.

Finally, there is the fact that Sacred Steel is known to be a very instrumental-heavy genre, yet the only instrumental track is the traditional “Wade In The Water.” While all the other tracks do showcase the fantastic skills of the four Slide Brothers, this track, played by the Campbell Brothers, is probably the best example of what Sacred Steel is all about. You can really hear why they consider steel guitar playing a different kind of singing. The Campbells’ guitar work soars throughout, evoking an image of preachers and pastors singing and praising their Lord with intense emotion. It’s a shame that there are no other instrumental tracks on the album, because these songs are truly the essence of Sacred Steel.

Still, there is no denying that Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers is a very powerful and energetic album that features highly skilled musicians playing some great songs. Fans of great guitar playing (especially slide guitar) will love this album, as will classic rock and blues lovers. Though the album features gospel musicians, it does an excellent job reinforcing the fact that without gospel, there would be no blues or R&B, and thus no rock ‘n’ roll. It also preaches that no matter where it comes from, music should be a celebration, bringing joy to all who care to listen. Hopefully, this album not only brings that feeling to listeners, but also leads them to discover and appreciate a style of music that all people should love, no matter what their religious affiliation.

For more (non-expert) information on Sacred Steel, here is a paper I wrote on the genre back in 2004 for a History of Blues class in college: Sacred Steel


Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis

Over the past 4-5 years, there’s been a revival in soul music. Often dubbed neo-soul, the amount of artists and bands that have begun to bring this truly American genre of music back to the ears of the public has been steadily increasing. And with the resurgence of vinyl, more and more music fans are rediscovering the music of the artists of the past. So it was not surprising to find out, back in the spring, that Booker T. Jones, of the infamous Booker T. & the M.G.’s, was put out a new album, called The Road From Memphis. What was surprising, however, was how fresh the music sound, and how great the entire album was.

I have been caught up in this recent revival, not because it’s popular (that’s not my style), but because I grew up listening to a lot of soul and R&B. Thanks to my father, I listened to a lot of Motown when I was younger, and due to his affinity to listening to a Saturday radio program called, Rhythm Revue, on WBGO (Newark, NJ) I was exposed to a lot more soul and R&B. Add to that the music of some movies like The Commitments, The Blues Brothers, and (yes, even) Muppets from Space, and I started to build a musical library of soul and R&B music. So it is not that surprising that I have become a fan of many new bands and artists that play in the same style, as well as discovering the artists that they were influenced by.

I don’t know when I became a fan of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, but it had to be around the time that I really got into The Blues Brothers, since Steve Cropper (guitar) and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) were in both bands. I soon discovered that not only were they a great band, but that they were essentially the house band for Stax Records back in the 1960s and 1970s. So that meant that they backed the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and many, many others, and were instrumental in creating the sound of Memphis soul. This also meant that Booker T. Jones is not just an amazing organist, he is a musical legend.

However, that didn’t guarantee his new music would be any good.

I first heard about The Road From Memphis on NPR back in March (I think it was on an episode of Fresh Air). I knew he had put out an album a few years ago, called Potato Hole, but for whatever reason I never bought it (I’m actually listening to it as I write, and not a fan – see below), so I didn’t know what to expect. The clips, however, intrigued me (it also helped that Sharon Jones and Yim Yames made cameos). So I went to one of the independent record stores here in Lawrence, KS, and took a listen to the album.

From the moment that the first track, “Walking Papers,” got going, I knew I had to buy the album. After skimming through the rest of the album briefly, I purchased it, and listened to it once I got home. With incredibly funky and tight grooves, and that classic Hammond organ sound shining through on the entire album,, I thought that it was very good.  Now, after months of listening to it, I’ve changed my mind. It’s great.

What I have realized is that the album is not great simply because of the songs, but it is largely due to the fact of who helped put it together.

Booker T.’s backing band is stellar. The lineup includes ?uestlove (drums), “Captain” Kirk Douglas (guitar), and Owen Biddle (bass), all from The Roots, as well as former Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, and Orgone percussionist Stewart Killen. That’s a backing band that exudes funk and soul, and it shows on every, single track.  Add in guest vocalists Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Sharon Jones (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Matt Berninger (The National), and the immortal Lou Reed, and you know you’re going to get something great. But the piece de resistance, is the fact that it was recorded and engineered by Gabriel Roth (aka Boscoe Mann), the co-founder of Daptone Records and the band leader of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

But this may mean absolutely nothing to the casual music fan. So I will explain.

Essentially, Jones has surrounded himself with people who are not only fans of his music, but are students of it. If you’ve heard anything by The Roots, or have seen them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, you know that they are deeply influenced by classic R&B, soul, and funk. So having the rhythm section of that band on this album not only enables Booker T. to play in a style he’s used to, but it adds a modernity to the sound. Dennis Coffey, as mentioned previously, was a member of the Funk Brothers, which was the house band for Motown, which not only makes him a legend in his own right, but also a musical peer of Jones. Stewart Killen’s regular band, Orgone, is a neo-soul band, who, like The Roots, are heavily influenced by classic soul and funk music. As for Roth, he has been one of the biggest proponents of the soul revival. His label, Daptone Records, has been a major player on the scene, and his band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, have become fairly well-known, headlining major festivals around the world. To sum it up, these people knew what it meant to make a real soul album.

This totally contrasts what Jones did with his previous solo effort, Potato Hole (which I just finished listening to). On that album, he had the southern-rock group The Drive-By Truckers back him, and the outcome was, in my opinion, less-than-stellar. Booker T. is not a rock organist. He is a soul organist, which is why The Road From Memphis completely outshines its predecessor.

If you are a fan of classic soul, funk, and/or R&B music, and even hip-hop, you should listen to The Road From Memphis, by Booker T. Jones. But don’t expect a classic Booker T. & the M.G.’s record. Though it has everything that you’d expect from Booker T., it also has the feeling of being fresh and relevant. It’s a modern soul record, made for the 21st Century. Just as the liner notes allude to, this is not revisiting past work, it builds on it, and, boy, does it sound good.

(I recommend “Walking Papers,” “Down in Memphis,” “Everything is Everything” {a Lauryn Hill cover}, and “Representing Memphis.” Here’s a behind the scenes look at the album.)