October 2001

Robert Randolph: The Word

There’s a buzz about Robert Randolph, an astounding virtuoso of the pedal-steel guitar who at age 24 has taken that instrument well beyond the realm with which it has long been associated.

“I want to make it known to all the world what a pedal steel guitar is,” says the New Jersey native. “Because a lot of people don’t even know what the instrument is, and the ones who do know think it’s only supposed to sound like country music. They don’t think of it sounding the way I play it. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute! You’re not supposed to be able to play jazz or Hendrix on a pedal steel.’ That within itself is fun, just seeing people react to something they never heard or saw before.”

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Robert Randolph: The Word

Randolph grew up playing in the House of God church in Orange, N.J. That African-American Pentecostal denomination features the steel guitar (pedal or lap) as its lead instrument in place of organ or piano. This bluesy style of gospel music was dubbed “Sacred Steel” and documented on a series of recordings from Arhoolie Records, two of which featured Randolph and his family band.

Since September of 2000, when he ventured outside of the church to play his first secular gig (opening for The North Mississippi Allstars at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan), Randolph has been one of the most talked about figures on the New York City music scene. Word of mouth quickly spread after he opened for Medeski, Martin & Wood at the Beacon Theater and later for Vernon Reid’s Masque at The Bottom Line.

Randolph’s combination of jaw-dropping technique, sanctified soulfulness and wild abandon on his custom-made 13-string pedal steel guitar (occasionally tweaked by wah-wah, phase and distortion pedals) is prominently showcased on the self-titled album by The Word, Randolph’s secular debut, featuring The North Mississippi Allstars and organist John Medeski of MMW, who also produced and released the album on his Ropeadope Records.

The Word romps through raw renditions of House of God staples like “At the Cross,” “Blood on the Rock” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” on the CD. It’s a beautiful blend of heavenly inspiration and hellacious licks that comes directly from the heart of this gifted young guitar-picker.

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