By: Dennis Cook
As Robert Randolph & The Family Band approach their first decade together, all evidence is their game is tighter than ever. Boldly emerging from the gospel community, Randolph – easily the greatest innovator on his weapon of choice, pedal steel guitar, since Red Rhodes reshaped the instrument with Michael Nesmith in the '70s – has always hummed with abundant spirit and Holy Ghost energy. This has never been clearer or more finely etched than third studio album, We Walk This Road (released June 21 on Warner Bros.). Produced with a sure hand and great sonic curiosity by T-Bone Burnett, this set nails the Sly & The Family Stone vibe Randolph has been hovering near for years. Less slick and more sharply drawn than 2006's Colorblind, the new album mingles the voices of the past with a decidedly modern edge. This is gospel music for people who like life to be rowdy and lil' freaky.
JamBase got to sit down with Randolph to discuss tackling Dylan, the roots of this album in the last Presidential election and more.
JamBase: We Walk This Road is your most together studio work to date. This feels like a classic album rather than a bunch of songs thrown together. There's a through-line and intelligence to the sequencing, song choices, etc.
Robert Randolph: That's what we set out to do with T-Bone, just come together and make this sort of thematic record of all sorts of inspirational songs and a lot of very cool sounds, and lyrically just trying to uplift people. And then going back and going back and finding all these old gospel and blues songs – which is really the roots of what I do anyway coming from the church – and taking them and making them into this new sort of Robert Randolph sound with new lyrics that relate to today.
JamBase: For many, gospel music is something of the past and not exactly relevant to today. I think it has the potential to be modern and relevant but often isn't.
Robert Randolph: In one of the first conversations I had with T-Bone we talked about really digging into these songs, because this is all the same stuff that made Zeppelin become Zeppelin, Dylan become Dylan. They listened to all these old recordings and realized they needed to dive into these things because this is where the roots of American music come from. Whether it's rewriting or rearranging these old songs, it's just putting your own music stamp on this but using the bones of it.
For instance, take "Dry Bones" off the record – "Them bones, them bones, them dry bones." It's really just an old field recording we took and just looped to it and had like a 30-minute jam. There was a lot of stuff going on all over the place, but we started to think about what they were really talking about with "them dry bones," and we figured out some new lyrics that addressed the bones of a thousand generations laughing in our messed up midst. And this was before BP blew up in the Gulf!
A lot of older material is heard but not actually comprehended. By inserting a contemporary twist you make this stuff live.
|Randolph and The Family Band|
Of course! And that's what we set out to do [with this album]; make this music relevant to everybody. And regardless of what songs are recorded, when we play live this song will some sort of 12-minute anyway!
You've never obeyed rules about time limits or staying within any one genre throughout your career.
That's what happens, and really the magic of playing shows. When these things happen, the crowd is smiling and the next minute the bass or guitar does something else that sparks something else emotionally. And that's the vibe we went after on this album, by way of exploring the bones and roots of gospel music and try to find a way for this music to relate to people today.
You made some great choices of the material. A lot of people, including the man himself, shy away from Dylan's Christian period, but you guys murder "Shot of Love."
Thanks! What was strange about that was one day we were sitting in the studio with T-Bone trying to find just one big, strong song we could just lay down the guitar heavy on and deliver a message. And I finally said, "There's got to be a Dylan song that nobody did before that I can do what Hendrix did to 'Watchtower.'" And T-Bone was like, "Yeah, everybody tries that but there's only one Hendrix. But let's see." We chose this one because it had this powerful message in there, and we all sat around and jammed to it.
We started this record coming out of the Bush Administration. Every break we'd watch the 2008 Presidential debates because T-Bone is a big Obama fan, and one of the other guys was a McCain fan. So, we'd sit there just watching & watching and we just realized how screwed up everything is! All the messages on this record, particularly "Shot of Love," well, we ALL need a shot of love right now. People are hurting with all the lying that's been going on. The song "Keep On Talking" ("Keep on talking, I'm not listening") was written as a direct result of that campaign. We were sort of afraid that the song might not age well with all the negative stuff in it, but there's still plenty more liars and crooks.
Oh, I don't think we've even begun to turn over the rocks in this country [laughs]!
Oh yeah. We really wanted to make a strong statement without pissing too many people off and hopefully uplifting most of them.
|Robert Randolph by Rod Snyder|
Speaking truth is always a little uncomfortable, but if you can do it in a way that makes people want to raise their hands and get into it and actually work on this stuff, well that's the way to do it, not just sit there and bitch and moan.
Look at Wall Street and BP, and then you look at this Tea Party stuff. Geez, where we going in this country?
We can't seem to join hands and do things together as a country like we used to. You don't pick your neighbors; you just happen to live near each other. But, you can pick the relationship you have with your neighbors.
We can do that, and we're really trying to tell people that in this record. Don't forget the word 'gospel' means the good word. So, we're ALWAYS trying to spread the good word. And the fact that we were able to tie all these different themes together, with segues from these old songs going into brand new ones, we've made Robert Randolph and the Family Band songs we'll be playing for the next 40 years. It's cool!
I like that you tap Prince on this album [a cover of "Walk Don't Walk" from Diamonds & Pearls]. People know all the songs about sex and dancing but spirituality and social conscience are reoccurring themes in his music, too.
By me knowing him and talking to him and being around him, I know he's a real spiritual dude. His spirituality is in his music and his lyrics in songs like "The Cross." We actually did a version of that one with the Blind Boys of Alabama that didn't make it onto a record and we thought about doing it again for this one. But then Lenny Waronker, the guy who signed Prince and did a bunch of records with him, came by towards the end of this record and suggested "Walk Don't Walk" as a way to tie this whole record together. I heard it one time and said, "Let's go! Let's record this NOW!" We just knew we could do this whole Family Band version of this song.
T-Bone is the man. He's just all about capturing the recording and getting the message across. And he told us, "I guarantee you just by me telling people we're recording together that people are going to want to come down." Next thing you know Jim Keltner saying, "Hey, let me play on some tracks." You got Robbie Robertson coming down just to sit in the studio, and Bob Dylan calling in on the phone. You got Robert Plant, Elton John and Leon Russell just hanging out playing piano. And all this stuff came out of inviting people to just come and hang, having an event they were welcome to. They knew we'd have great things to eat, and they just wanted to be part of it in some way.
That fits in with the general spirit of the record, which sort of says, "We're all in this together. We're all on the same block. WE walk this road. Not YOU walk this road. It's WE."
We walk this road together. We ARE all in this together. That's basically what it is.
One of the best stories of this record was capturing our version of Blind Willie Johnson's original version of "If I Had My Way." T-Bone had given me this CD with all these old songs and he had this one on it. One day we took a shot at it and it turned into this 40-minute jam, guitars everywhere and this, that and the other thing. At one point we even had two different songs; one was a country song and the other was very different. I wasn't sure it was gonna work, so we left it alone for 5 or 6 months. Then, Ben Harper comes in and we start jamming on guitars. We had a cool little thing already but he says, "Let me hear something you don't have finished yet." I put on "If I Had My Way," and he said, "Is this like the Blind Willie Johnson thing?" and he went right into the vocal booth and started singing those choruses – "If I had my way, I'd tear the building down." And everybody was like, "Well, well, let's dive into this thing now!" It became this great, soulful song where we swapped out this story of Sampson & Delilah for the one of Daniel in the lion's den. T-Bone and I went into the lounge with the Daniel lyrical concept while Ben was knocking out the choruses, and it turned out to be a great night.
You're coming up on 10 years with the Family Band, and now more than ever, you're one of the few modern equivalents to Sly & The Family Stone.
Don't forget, Sly came out of the church, too. But I'd only barely heard Sly & The Family Stone, and then I saw an interview with Sly back in 2002 that made me think, "Well, we're doing the same thing!" He said they were using all the sounds they grew up with in church but Sly said he just had more of a whacky, rock 'n' roll mind to tie all this stuff together. And I thought, "That's me, too," without even really trying to be like that. It's just one of those natural things with me going from sitting in church and then going out to play those early shows at the Lakeside Lounge and Mercury Lounge in New York and places all over Boston and Philly. I realized this was a whole different universe to Planet Church. There's people out here that want a good message, that want to be inspired and uplifted, and that will always be in us.
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