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Robert Randolph and the Family Band
IH Mississippi Valley Blues Fest
June 29, 2007

Robert Randolph is the victim of too much hype. Following his performance at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa, people I interviewed gave mixed reviews. I was expecting the glowing accolades from most, but I was surprised by those who said he wasn’t that good – no big deal. I have concluded that all the hype surrounding the young Sacred Steel player gone secular, including gigs with Eric Clapton, have led the uninformed and semi-familiar to think he doesn’t just play music, he can walk on water.

Their disappointment didn’t even center on the fact he is not really a blues artist (and didn’t play blues) playing at a blues festival. That part I could have understood. One woman complained that Randolph opened with a ten minute version of “We’re Gonna Have A Good Time.” During those minutes she kept wondering when the “good time” was going to start. Well, to her credit, if she is not having a good time by 11:00 pm at a festival where the bands started at 5:00 pm and the cold beer was copious, one more band was probably not going to knock her little man out of her boat.

What all that buzz surrounding Randolph did do, is bring the largest Friday night crowd ever to the 23rd annual MVBF. It also brought a younger crowd. As one pundit said, “Hopefully, they came in early enough to catch an act or two before Randolph so that they can get turned on to ‘Blues.’”

Briefly, Robert Randolph is a mega talented singer, steel guitar player, six string guitar player, dancer, and energetic entertainer. He learned to play steel guitar in East Coast Pentecostal churches where, beginning in the 1930s, a sub genre of Gospel music developed called Sacred Steel. Often criticized by church elders for taking the music into the secular world, Randolph has become the toast of the contemporary music scene (especially Jam music) landing on the cover of magazines and garnering gigs with the likes of Clapton.

The Family Band expanded by one additional guitarist from the four members on their first two records for the live show. Robert was seated center stage at his custom 13 string pedal steel with keyboard, bass, drums and guitar surrounding him. The crowd was on their feet grooving throughout the show and shouting their approval. The tempo was always rapid with a Funk beat often morphing into an Allman-esque jam. Robert and his guitar player even did twin lead guitar, ala Betts-Allman of the original Allman Brothers. Things slowed only slightly for “Press On” with the fantastic falsetto voice of cousin and bassist Danyel Morgan. Later, Randolph picked the opening to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (slight Return)” on his steel guitar to thunderous approval.

Wearing a New York Mets (#15 Beltran) jersey, a black doo rag, and a constant smile, Robert would often leave the guitar and dance around the stage demonstrating movements for the audience members to copy. Later, he strapped on a metal-flake red Telecaster guitar and sang four part harmony on “Soul Refreshing.”

During the encore on a differently tuned, second steel guitar, joyous fans began to climb onto the six foot high stage. At first security removed them one by one, but, sensing no danger from eager fans, Randolph told them, “the fans just want to dance.” That opened the door, and by the end, there had to be 25 people dancing on the stage with the band.

By the end, one could understand why young people like him so much.

By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker

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