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.

With Lickety Split, his fourth studio album, Randolph offers brilliant reminders of the heights to which he can rise. It’s not a perfect album or one destined to be his breakout, but it’s easily his most solid effort to date. Where We Walk This Road sounded like T Bone Burnett’s idea of what a pedal steel maven’s magnum opus should sound like, Lickety Split sounds like the band’s idea of what the ideal Robert Randolph & The Family Band album should sound like. Quite possibly, the optimal album falls somewhere in between. “Amped Up,” the opening track, falls squarely within the realm of Randolph’s College Gameday catalog and “Take The Party” and “Brand New Wayo,” which receive significant boosts from Trombone Shorty and Santana, are festival ready. Lickety Split contains the obligatory gospel ballad that beseeches faith without being overtly religious and unnecessary covers of the Ohio Players” “Love Rollercoaster” and The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” “Blacky Joe,” however, balances everything out. Possibly the best studio track Randolph & The Family Band have ever laid down, it features a fantastic coda with Randolph and Santana riffing off each other in a friendly guitar duel that brings out the best in both of them.

Of course, this perception of Randolph’s career presumes that his plans gibe with those the jamband world set out for him. Randolph wouldn’t be the first musician to establish his bona fides with the jamband world as a means towards seeking a wider audience. It may not make for the most exciting moments on a festival stage but Randolph’s gospel leanings, which originate to his pre-Word days, are genuine and very few musicians would turn away from the financial security of mainstream success. While those that read sites like JamBase are perfectly content to see their favorites evolve into Mountain Jam headliners, quite often, the artists are intent on climbing different mountains. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and Michael Franti & Spearhead have confronted the same issues, only their inroads to the mainstream have produced more tangible success.

OFFRAMPS AND REST STOPS

FOR ANYONE THAT CHOOSES to ignore the warning of searching for rock and roll saviors, Leroy Justice will surely liberate them from a world of talent show “success stories,” electronic bleepy-bloops and whatever the hell Miley Cyrus thinks she’s doing these days. On Above The Weather, their third studio effort, the East Coast rockers offer manna from the heavens for those that still revel in phenomenal rock albums. Anthems in search of arena, songs like “Up On The Mountain,” “So Long” and “Two Trees” reach the majestic heights they aim for, finding the right spaces to emphasize Sloan Marshall’s organ and Justin Mazer’s guitar. It took a song as great as The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Straight Up And Down” to keep Steve Buscemi from watching Boardwalk Empire’s hooch-filled tide to the strains of “Watch Him Fall.” That swagger runs through “Blue Eyed Blues” and “Worry” while the band confidently takes a Santana-like stroll in the midst of “Before I Die.” The soulful vocals of charismatic frontman Jason Gallagher form the heart of the album, conveying an eternal, indefatigable strength. Like true rock singers, Gallagher imbues his vocals with the right touch of battered and bruised emotion without ever casting doubt on his ability to persevere.

There is unlikely to be a better rock and roll album released in 2013.

EVER SINCE HELL FROZE OVER and The Eagles returned to the road, it has repeatedly been proven that that there is nothing more exciting than a reunion. On September 21, that point will be confirmed once more when U-Melt reunites at the Brooklyn Bowl, playing their first show together in nearly three years. Originators of progressive groove, a wicked blend of electronica-style dance riffs, intricate prog-rock twists and turns and wildly compelling improvisation, U-Melt was a thinking man’s jamband, capable of exhilarating those that came to party while simultaneously intriguing those who appreciate expert musicianship. Eclectic, energetic and flat-out fun, U-Melt transformed each individual concert into an unmissable event, their New Year’s Eve shows never disappointed and their after-hours marathons were always rewarding.

Well versed in the philosophy that a concert should be its own unique experience, each U- Melt show featured Zac Lasher’s brilliance at forming compelling soundscapes with his bevy of keyboards, Rob Salzer’s wizardry as an electrifying guitarist, Adam Bendy’s mastery of weaving deceptively complex bass lines into the mix and George Miller’s remarkable versatility of shifting the mood from pacific jazz to pulsing untz with a single beat of the snare drum. When Salzer left the band in late 2009, Kevin Griffin stepped into the fold, offering new variations on familiar themes. When the band reunites at the Brooklyn Bowl for one more after-hours affair, it will mark the first time that U-Melt plays with both Salzer and Griffin. For those within the Tri-State area, something truly special awaits.

COMMERCIALS ARE RARELY a font for legitimate humor. However, if someone wants to open a hipster troll car wash somewhere along the Trunk Road, permits shall be granted. Now, queen my dishes, please.

Words By: David Schultz


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