Hitting The Trunk Road | Robert Randolph

Today we launch a New-To-JamBase column called Hitting The Trunk Road penned by journalist David Schultz. Schultz has always been one of my favorite writers dating back to his Schultz' Earful on Earvolution. He doesn't get caught up in the day to day of the music world and has a knack for focusing on the big picture. Last year Hidden Track hosted his Hitting The Trunk Road column, which we're pleased to bring over to JamBase. - Scott Bernstein

It’s quaint and peacefully nostalgic to recall a pre-9/11 world where the closing of Wetlands Preserve served as a legitimate and meaningful lower Manhattan calamity. One of the now-antiquated discussions held back then concerned Robert Randolph and whether the then 20-year-old pedal steel guitarist would be the savior of rock and roll. At that time, Randolph was basking in the glow of The Word, his North Mississippi Allstars/John Medeski curated coming-out party, and Live At Wetlands, his official Family Band debut that sounded the clarion call to the greater jamband community that greatness might be at hand. In the ensuing decade though, Randolph’s career has had so many jumps, starts and shifts in focus that it could serve as a cautionary tale for the next young musician thrust into the role of rock and roll’s next big thing.

The heady buzz that swirled around Randolph in those early days sprang from his reputation as the Hendrix of the pedal steel guitar. Centering his live shows around rollicking instrumental jams that featured his ingenious pedal steel riffs, Randolph merged blues- based rock and roll with traditional gospel and demonstrated a fine ear for the history of both genres. Long before it would be fashionably chic, Randolph worked covers of “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” into his set lists and would stun crowds with faithful interpretations of Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” and Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.” With an unending reserve of youthful ebullience, Randolph would often erase the lines between the performer and audience, opening the stage during “Shake Your Hips” for dance fests of questionable quality, passing the microphone around those close to the stage and inviting those brave enough to pick up a guitar to jam with the band.

As his career evolved, Randolph could be found leading a Sacred Steel gathering on Austin City Limits, swapping licks with Eric Clapton on “Sunshine Of Your Love,” sitting in with the Dave Matthews Band and headlining Experience Hendrix showcases with Buddy Guy. In contrast to conduct becoming the most non-traditional entrant on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 100 greatest guitarists, Randolph could just as easily be spotted in the NBA TV studios playing for a bemused Charles Barkley, crooning cheekily on 30 Rock as part of a sendup of celebrity songfests and palling around with JD & The Straight Shot. (Given Randolph’s allegiance to the New York Knicks, the latter can be forgiven).

Randolph’s unwillingness to reach for the rock and roll brass ring could also be detected in his studio offerings. Unfocused olios that seem unsure of their target audience, Randolph’s recorded output makes more of an effort to assure that there’s something for everyone rather than commit to a single vision. While occasionally capturing the infectious energy of their live shows, Family Band albums tend to rely more on secular gospel, pop pabulum and AM-lite rock then on Randolph’s ability to generate a stomp worthy of a SWAC marching band. With We Walk This Road, RR&TFB received the T Bone Burnett treatment, mixing gospel-tinged soul with astutely selected Dylan and Lennon covers to produce their most cohesive effort.

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