Sacred steel whiz Robert Randolph reconnects with roots, finds inspiration
Last year at The Monterey Jazz Festival, Robert Randolph and the Family Band laid down a groove so infectious that it reached right into the genetic core of the audience. They were the only band that day whose music rivaled the intensity of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds’ jets that were buzzing above the fairgrounds. It wasn’t sheer volume that captivated the crowd—rather, it was the skills of brilliant sacred steel player Robert Randolph.
When he burst onto the scene in 2000, Randolph’s music was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Imagine catching Bob Marley at CBGB in 1976 and hearing reggae for the first time. Fast forward to today, and Randolph is touring with his mentors, The Slide Brothers. Together, they deliver a sound that is at once new, electrifying and full of the Holy Spirit.
Randolph grew up in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Irvington, N.J. in the 1980s and ’90s. While many of his friends ended up in jail, Randolph was safely sequestered within the church community that his family was a part of. From his home in West Orange, N.J. Randolph recalls those formative years. “As a kid sometimes people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to church again, why you going there?’ But hey, in those days you didn’t have any choice—our parents made us go to church.”
Unique to all other churches in the area, The Church of the Living God featured sacred steel—more commonly known as pedal steel guitar—in the church band. “It’s like Buena Vista Social Club—finally people can understand where my music comes from,” says Randolph. “This style of pedal steel and guitar has been going on in our church since the early 1900s.”
Wanting to share the sounds and story of sacred steel with the world, Randolph’s latest project features his mentors from the church, including legendary players Calvin Cooke, Darick Campbell, Chuck Campbell and Aubrey Ghent. On their new release, Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers, music that has been 80 years in the making and previously only found within the walls of The Church of the Living God is now available to the secular public.
Known as the B.B. King of the sacred steel, Calvin Cooke of The Slide Brothers explains from his home in Atlanta, why, after so much time, the music has finally reached the masses. “I played in the church for 57 years and now another generation has come up behind us and they like to get out [and] do more,” says Cooke.
During their live show at The Rio Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 20, Randolph and The Slide Brothers plan to play a variety of songs that everyone can enjoy—from Eric Clapton’s “Motherless Children” to the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
The band members attribute their onstage chemistry to their tight-knit relationship. “We have all learned from each other and we are like family on the steel guitar because we all grew up together,” says Cooke. “We used to live together and babysit and we’ve known each other our whole lives.”
Randolph says that sharing the national stage with The Slide Brothers has been the greatest and most satisfying achievement of his career. “Now we actually get to tell our story,” he says. “Everyone will get to understand how important those guys were to me and the history of music of where I come from.”
Robert Randolph performs with The Slide Brothers at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-8209.