Robert Randolph has never really had a problem getting noticed. Musicians, critics and fans have been raving about him since he was a teenager, playing his pedal steel guitar only in church. While he received plenty of attention, he may have been considered more of a novelty than one of the most promising musicians of his generation.
Now, after going from church to bars to the jam band scene to mainstream popularity, Randolph seems to have truly hit his stride and settled into his own identity with his band's latest record, We Walk This Road, released earlier this summer. Produced by T Bone Burnett - who could be called the past decade's producer laureate of American roots music - the record finds Robert Randolph and the Family Band digging deep into the annals of folk and roots with covers of Blind Willie Johnson and Bob Dylan, as well as new takes on tracks from John Lennon and Prince. But the record also showcases, as it should, the fierce talent with which Randolph and his band are so equipped.
"It was our intention to go and find a new library of inspiration from T Bone and the other guys we were around in the studio when we were recording this record," says Randolph over the phone from Amsterdam while taking a day off from his European tour.
The journey of Robert Randolph is hardly a typical tale of rock and roll progression. He came up playing music in the House of God church, a congregation that focuses on music, especially the sounds of the pedal steel guitar, that create a style referred to as "sacred steel." Before Randolph, the style had been rarely seen outside of the church.
"The sound and the history becomes a special story that's been hidden in our church organization for so long. Now it's starting to come out," says Randolph.
After some influence from some folks in the New York City live music scene, Randolph, still quite young, soon found his way into bars where he'd play to audiences who had never heard anything like the high-energy, wildly technical and perfectly danceable songs he and his band were kicking out.
"The next thing you know, all these kids from the jam scene were showing up. A month after, that the Allman Brothers were doing their Beacon Theater run and Derrick Trucks and Susan Tedeschi came and sat in with us for a three-and-a-half-hour jam," recalls Randolph, now 31, who was only 21-years old at that time.
Randolph then spent most of his twenties with one foot in the jam band scene, opening shows for that camp's bigger names - often playing while decked out in a skull cap and an oversized football jersey, making him more than stand out among the tie dye set - but also slaying audiences at the nation's biggest summer festivals. In the past few years, the Family Band sound has maintained its gospel and sacred steel roots, but meandered closer to modern R&B, which meant exposure to yet another audience and having the band's music featured on Sportscenter promos, among other prominent places. While his audiences and levels of exposure may have changed over the years, Randolph has kept the fire of his live show going (anyone who's learned the band's trademark dance "The March" can attest to this) making him a constant draw on the touring scene.
But now, after spending time crafting his most solid record to date with Burnett, Randolph has a different view of his future - something Burnett helped shape.
"You got these guys like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson who are sort of wondering who's going to be the next guy to take rock music into another world and allow them to be proud," says Randolph.
That's a tall order, to say the least, and maybe it's almost a burden of sorts. But Randolph seems to have had his ambitions supercharged by the recording of We Walk This Road - a record that reportedly made Bob Dylan proud, as it should.
Robert Randolph, Eric Tollefson and the
World's Greatest Lovers
7pm Sunday, August 15. Athletic Club of Bend, 61615 Athletic Club Dr. $16. All ages. Tickets available at Newport Avenue Market.