THE WORD | A PRAYER WITHOUT PREACHING

Hallelujah! I have seen the light. The WORD was passed down from on high last night - like commandments etched deeply into large stone tablets. The Bowery Ballroom was transformed into hallowed grounds as the audience within attained musical enlightenment. The Word took to the stage like a five-headed preacher, poised to convert the giggling, hedonistic audience - still intoxicated with the sins of the previous set from the North Mississippi AllStars. Spouting fire and brimstone on this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, New York City bore witness to an evening of biblical proportions.

Photo by Danny Owen
The Word is a brand new band that had their world premiere last night - Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar, John Medeski on organ/electric piano, Luther Dickinson on guitar, Cody Dickinson on drums and Chris Chew on bass. The band was Moses and the music their staff - they separated the seas of mediocrity, allowing us to boogie in the dry swath of genius in between.

The set opened with "Without God" - which begins with a rumbling from the rest of the band with Robert laying riffs on top. Like light coming from darkness in Genesis, the song congealed into a gospel groove that reminisced many of the themes found in some of Randolph's own material. At the start of the set, the music seemed to center around the sacred steel with each other band member feeding off this central figure. It was a relief to Robert's faithful who have played the role of Job suffering through the trials of a drought of Randolph gigs in the area. His beautifully moaning tone was mannah to their ears, getting everyone moving right from the start. Dickinson followed along with blistering solos on the slide guitar. The other three held down the rhythm and themes opening up the two soloists for more exploration.

Photo by Danny Owen
Marching through a set that consisted almost entirely of material off their forthcoming (July 31) self-titled album, The Word was a vision. The band got tighter and tighter and more and more comfortable within their material. The music is advertised as gospel numbers, but the band opened up the songs and explored the deeply hidden truths trapped within the genre. Randolph's steel was as sweet as ever, blistering the ears with mind-boggling playing. He deflected the lead around like a true professional, involving and intertwining the brilliant slide guitar of Luther Dickinson and the whirling organ of John Medeski.

The Word is such a wonderful name for the band. For the music is all instrumental - the lyrics have been stripped from these religious passages. Secularized, the music itself does the talking allowing each member of the dancing audience to cull their own interpretation. It is prayer without preaching.

Photo by Danny Owen
"Joyful Sounds" was where the set really started to get moving. This is the opening track (and closing reprise) on the album and is like the Word anthem with it's addictive melody and uplifting twists. It couldn't be named any better as the audience began to feel the power and religion deep within their music.

The set moved on and a surprising appearance of the Randolph original, "NYC Freaks" allowed the band to delve into some serious rock and roll. Long, twisted jams were the savior, as the audience swayed and rocked to the pulsing energy from the stage. For a first time show for this band, the cohesiveness was off the wall and the wattage was through the roof. With Randolph as their hair, the Samson of a band was as powerful as you'll find and proceeded to knock the walls of the Bowery Ballroom down. Alternating between solos and wicked interplay, the band defied their youth and dared musical polytheists to think of any other on this night.

Photo by Danny Owen
A couple tunes featured a quieter side to the band. Featuring some very beautiful melody, the quintet showed their prowess at evoking emotional energy from their material. "I Shall Not Be Moved" had Luther leading the way on a touching guitar with the rest of the band filling in the hypnotic lullaby beautifully. Like a bush that burns for no reason, the band glowed with a higher power, giving each face in the audience an awed grin - each knowing that they were witnessing something very, very special.

They took the audience into their ark, not two-by-two, but completely en masse, overwhelming us with song after song of danceable euphoria. I couldn't help but shake uncontrollably, jumping, shouting, pounding, laughing - I was blown away, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. There were many sets of raised hands during the show, thanking the heavens for what was transpiring.

The set culminated with the throw-down to end all throw-downs. If you never believed that a band professing to play gospel had room in their repertoire for some dirty, funky rock nastiness - get your heathen ass to a Word show when they are within a 40 year hike across the desert from your town.

Photo by Danny Owen
"Waiting On My Wings" is rock and roll personified. No special adornments - just a loincloth of in-your-face, funked out music. Everything up to that point in the set was marvelous - "Waiting..." was ten plagues of sweaty sickness. Each band member delved into the chunky groove with full force. Slinging vermin and locusts of chopping drum beats, wildly undulating bass lines, driving organ grinds, lightning bolt guitar and gorgeously winding pedal steel riffs, this song topped all else in the evening. Stretching out into infinity, the jam twisted and turned around the driving themes. The band was as tight as anything and as the torrential rains of sonic ecstacy overwhelmed me, I felt christened - my ears were cleansed of all sin and a feeling of peace settled in. Each time the band would oscillate - letting the jam reach fevered, uncharted territories and then ebbing back, with either Medeski or Randolph brilliantly letting the theme take hold. At one point, the song flipped into a Luther Dickinson lead interlude which harkened the Allmans' "Mountain Jam" as well as "Third Stone From the Sun." Dickinson lead the band through this section with his usual brilliance, trading off licks with Randolph as he had done all night. The egoless joy on stage was echoed in the audience which hurtled their bodies in all directions across the floor. Salvation had been attained and there was no holding back the pure emotion thriving in the room.

When it came to an end the joy was intense and the only pain I felt was in my flushed cheeks - stretched to their limits by wide smiles and cries of ecstacy. This band made me feel like very few others have made me feel. I couldn't help but shake uncontrollably, jumping, shouting, pounding, laughing - I was blown away, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. They took the notion of music as religion to the next level, opening up a hole in the clouds of musical ennui to let the light of heaven shine down onto us, if only for one night.

I hate to point out any weaknesses of the show, but I can't say it was perfect. All my criticisms reflect the newness of these guys playing together - a roughness that will be polished with time, I am certain. First, I felt that it took a long time for Chew and Cody to get involved fully. The beats and lines they were laying down at the onset of the show were very simple and boring. Within the jams they let loose a bit and prodded the direction of the music, but in the context of the composition, their roles were a little TOO minimal for me. The other problem the band seems to have echos something that Robert's band seems to have trouble with - ending songs. This is typical for new bands - they get so involved in the wonderful music and then can't find a way to end it gracefully. These points are minor and will not doubt be rectified in due time.

They say there are ten commandments - but I'll give you just two - check out the Word at all costs, and buy the album when it comes out (July 31). They will have you forgetting about and throwing your hands up in the air in praise. Thank the Lord, for I have seen The Word!

BTW, the North Mississippi Allstars opening set kicked some major ass, worth the price of admission on it's own. I'd love to comment more on them, but it just ain't gonna happen.

What an unbelievable night, week, year of music!!!

LIVE IS GOOD!

Aaron Stein
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 6/28/01]

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