There’s people who are looking to be touched as well as just to be entertained. They’re looking for something, especially these days, positive — and I know that’s what I can give them.
story by Jay Gentile
photo by Sam Erickson
Twenty-five-year-old Robert Randolph says that in the short time that he has been performing live, at least 500 people have said goodbye to their drug addictions, have decided against taking their own lives, and have put away clandestine machinations of killing their father or their girlfriend. These troubled souls cited Randolph’s music as the driving force behind such decisions. And he has the e-mails to prove it.
The performances unleashed by the young pedal steel guitar virtuoso and his band, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, are best known for their shockingly unique combination of power, energy and intensity. Randolph and his crew assault unsuspecting audiences with their unprecedented smattering of rock, soul, funk, gospel, R & B and happy jam band vibes – all in the name of making people feel good.
The son of a deacon and a minister, who cut his musical chops playing pedal steel guitar in his family’s House of God church, cites God as the primary source of his seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy and intensity. He also cites the pedal steel guitar as his salvation from a life of street crime, drug dealing, gang shootouts and chronic truancy.
Traditionally cloaked in rock obscurity as the chief tool employed within whiny, depressing country tunes, Randolph and his band have patented an entirely new way to rock by marrying that sad pedal steel guitar with upbeat and powerful rock. Randolph made that union his life mission after he was introduced to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rendition of “Voodoo Chile” just five years ago.
Randolph listed to the tape incessantly – raising the eyebrows of local street thugs in his urban New Jersey hometown, who wondered why he was blasting vicious rock guitar licks instead of thumping rap bass lines from his car like the rest of them. But although he was at times caught up in the thug lifestyle that surrounded him, Randolph was never quite like the rest.
What made Randolph unique was his devotion to the church, which he made a point to visit every Sunday throughout his formative teen years. He dutifully strummed his pedal steel guitar in the church even while living a life that included selling drugs for about $200 a day, missing an obscene amount of school and dodging bullets with his friends.
Some of those friends weren’t so lucky and never lived to see Randolph today – sitting squarely on the cusp of stardom following last month’s release of his first studio album, Unclassified, on Warner Brothers Records, and his attention-grabbing gigs on the Sprite tour along with established heavyweights the Roots, O.A.R., N.E.R.D. and Talib Kweli.
“Despite all the negative things that you did that week or whatever, walk into a church and everyone’s just pouring their hearts out,” Randolph explains in a lengthy, in-depth interview with Chicago Innerview. “I kind of keep that same mentality [with music.]”
Randolph says his obsession with guitar “allowed me to stay in the house and practice when I was supposed to be out with certain people doing certain things at that time…I look at now how fortunate I am today ’cause I easily could have been in jail. Had I been there, I’d probably have been dead.
“That’s what we share with people: ‘Don’t follow the negative trends. Follow the positive trends.’ It’s all right to follow a trend…if it’s positive.” Randolph says he is out to “show everybody that you can be a musician, you can be young, and you can still be about all the positive things…I came from all these same kinds of negative backgrounds that were surrounding me, but you can overcome it. I overcame it.”
Randolph’s church performances attracted the attention of John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars, who invited Randolph to join in on sessions for The Word, an adventurous collaboration of gospel, rock, groove and jazz some three years ago. After touring as the opening act for jam band icons like Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band, Randolph released his Live at the Wetlands album on his own Dare label last year.
The Family Band quickly earned a cult following within the jam band faithful yet as Randolph’s tunes garner more attention, the band is finding fans from all walks of life. From 60-year-old grandmothers to frat boys to hippies to young African-American hip-hop followers, Randolph seeks to make people rediscover the good in the world and the positive aspects of their individual lives.
When asked why he thinks so many people identify with his music, Randolph had this to say: “Because it’s soulful man, and you can not deny nothin’ that’s so soulful and energetic and soulful like that and positive. You just can’t deny it. Positive always outweighs negative. That’s just the way it is…You can’t deny something that makes you move which is so soulful.”
At a Family Band show, “everybody’s usually movin’,” Randolph says. “If they not movin’, it’s like their first show and they’re like ‘what in the world is goin’ on?’ I can see it on people’s faces.” Randolph says he enjoys watching those faces of wrinkled perplexity transform themselves into broad smiles as the band’s tasty grooves sink in and as sedate, lifeless crowds are transformed into wild, ass-shaking believers.
Despite the critical role that religion plays in Randolph’s life and in his music, he says he’s not out to convert anyone. “I don’t really plan on givin’ ’em church,” he says. “I give ’em my teachings that I got from my church…I’m not asking you to go to church. I’m sharing my life and some of my experiences.
“It takes a lot of hard work in giving people something positive, and that’s what I live for,” he says. “There’s people who are looking to be touched as well as just to be entertained. They’re looking for something, especially these days, positive – and I know that’s what I can give to them…What we like to do is uplift people. We like to get people happy.”
Randolph describes his “press on” philosophy, often referred to in his earlier songs, as such: “You have life. You’re breathing and your smiling. Get through the problems that to you seem so big, but is so small to someone else…because when you wake up in the morning, you have something that was taken away from thousands of people that same day…Just press on. You can get through it. It works. I do it all the time.”
Randolph says he hopes that his message will catch on with other artists, especially young black ones, who seem conditioned through radio, television and the recording industry to believe that negativity is all there is in life.
“Of course it should change,” Randolph said of the negativity in media. “It should be more positive stuff, but I think there’s a lot of these people in these record companies who really don’t know what they’re doing. And they need to make money and people need to keep a job, so they’ll go ‘wow, this negative guy made us a lot of money, let’s find another guy who can be just like that’…And kids, they don’t know any better. They think that’s the way to live their lives, just like this guy.”
Yet Randolph is not worried. He is convinced that he has tapped into something deep and heartfelt here that resonates with all types of people, something that other artists will seek to mimic – canceling out much of the negativity so predominant in society today.
“I just do what I do and it’ll spread. The good always outweighs the bad,” he says. “We on the right direction now, as a world and as a people, we all goin’ in the right direction.”