Archive for March, 2007
This month we’re giving you a sneak preview of the new Wynton Marsalis CD scheduled for release later this week. As a follow up to our December feature on New Orleans, we have the latest from soul queen Irma Thomas as well as an overview of Scram Records, an obscure ’60s label from the Big Easy. Two new DVDs featuring Rob Swift and Roc Raida highlight the art of the DJ and turntablism, and our resident rap expert takes a look at the new release from Wu-Tang affiliate Hell Razah. An examination of the sacred steel tradition is provided along with a review of Robert Randolph & the Family Band’s Colorblind. Also featured in this issue is some vintage New York funk, some classic Chicago blues from Junior Wells, Shirley Murdock’s new gospel release, and Elisabeth Withers’ debut R&B album.
March 6th, 2007
Title: From The Plantation to The Penitentiary
Artist: Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Note
Catalog No.: 0946 3 73675 2 0
Blue Note was, for a time long, LONG ago, a label where you could stick your hand into a pile of records blindfolded and ALWAYS grab something that would have you swinging IMMEDIATELY, even if you had never heard of ANY of the musicians that were on that particular record. After Blue Note’s heyday in the 50’s and 60’s, the label was sold and taken over by those who apparently did not read the fine print on the label’s famous logo, “The Finest in Jazz since 1939.” Since the label’s re-birth, jazz titans of the 50’s and 60’s such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Horace Silver have been joined by the contemporary “by-products” of our time, such as Norah Jones, Lou Rawls, and Van Morrison (…wait a minute… VAN MORRISON!!!???). No doubt with the induction of these “artificial flavors” to this hallowed jazz-label, it was understandable that true jazz fans would begin losing faith that any resurrection of the label as a standard of jazz excellence would be possible (even now if you look closely, the logo for Blue Note has remained the same, but the fine print proclaiming it as “the finest in jazz” has been removed completely).
Luckily, it wasn’t long before the saints came marching in. REAL jazz artists with strong reputations such as trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis started making the pilgrimage from Columbia to Blue Note, presumably in an effort to save the trampling of the name of at least one iconic group which they had both been members of at separate times–Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Wynton Marsalis, without needing to be stated, is a household name for anyone who calls themselves a jazz aficionado. He is even arguably a household name for those who vaguely know much about jazz at all. Through his plethora of genres, New Orleans native Marsalis has entered the public eye (and ear) through many forms: as trumpet virtuoso, jazz musician, classical musician, film composer, Pulitzer Prize recipient, documentary interviewee, international ambassador of good will as a UN Messenger of Peace, and even as a teacher in the public school realm. As a jazz musician, he continues to perform, record, and tour. Since signing with Blue Note in 2004, he has recorded four albums to add to his discography of 40+ pre-Blue Note releases (nine of which won him Grammys and three went gold in sales). This latest release, From The Plantation to The Penitentiary, marks his fifth Blue Note release in only three years with the label.
Each release from Marsalis, as chronicled over his career, seeks to approach and negotiate music from a different angle–some paying tribute to musical forefathers, some paying tribute to his African American ancestors, and some paying tribute to no one at all, but offering a snapshot of society at the time. Some just exist for the pure sake of the existence of swing itself, letting the listener conjure up his or her own thoughts and judgments. From The Plantation to The Penitentiary seeks to shed light on America’s identity underneath the appearance of glee and affluence that our leaders would have you believe unconditionally. Marsalis’s illumination is based on his own personal travels as performer, educator and American citizen. For someone who has seen as much of the world (let alone our country) as Mr. Marsalis has, his view deserves our attention.
Seven tracks comprise this latest effort by Marsalis, and the stylistic ground he covers in such a short amount of time is considerable. While his previous releases have, for the most part, centered around a common stylistic theme (an album of ballads, an album of New Orleans style, etc.), this album of seven tracks covers SIXTEEN unique and distinguishable styles. Grooves range from jazz styles such as traditional swing, up-tempo, and waltzes, to Latin grooves such as soca, naningo, and cha-cha. Even grooves in the pop realm show their face in the form of Motown, shuffle, ballad, and dare I say . . . country and western. These grooves converge to give an all-encompassing depiction of our modern way of life here in America. The tracks take us on a journey of our homeland as we are forced to look face-to-face at our degradation of women in the entertainment industry through the piece “The Return of Romance,” and our out-of-control financial abuse in “Super Capitalism.” Marsalis even puts down his trumpet (a Monette, the Rolls-Royce of trumpets, I might jealously point out) to give us a taste of spoken-word where he calls out our nation’s leaders in “Where Y’all At?”. All is not negative in his eyes, however, as he points out the innocence of youth in “These Are Those Soulful Days” and the freedom of the musician in all of us in “Doin’ Our Thing.”
Joining Marsalis on this latest release are four talented musicians, contrary to the 20-piece big band setting he has remained close to with his leadership of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson round out his quintet. Twenty-one-year-old vocalist Jennifer Sanon joins the band on four of the seven tracks. From The Plantation to The Penitentiary is not intended for idle background music. It is music that demands your complete attention and no doubt will require repeated listenings before you can grasp the entire aim Marsalis is trying to convey. Fans of Neo, Morpheus, and The Matrix might argue that this album could be “The Red Pill,” showing you the depth of our society in it’s true form. Still, if you gain nothing more than a provoked sense of thought after hearing this release, Mr. Marsalis has achieved his goal.
Posted by Francisco Raul Dean
March 6th, 2007
Title: Renaissance Child
Artist: Hell Razah
Label: Nature Sounds
Catalog No: NSD 128
Renaissance Child (2007) is the debut album from Wu-Tang affiliate Hell Razah. As a member of Sunz of Man, a group that included collaborator Killah Priest, Hell Razah rose to modest underground fame in the late 1990s. As the hip hop climate became increasingly more commercial, Hell Razah struggled to attain the type of acclaim an artist of his ability deserved. After many notable guest appearances and a stint in the hip hop supergroup Black Market Militia, Hell Razah has finally dropped his long awaited solo album on the upstart Nature Sounds label.
The album opens with “Nativity,” as Hell Razah spits his typical religious inspired lyrics over a track produced by newcomer Krohme. “Project Jazz” is a banger featuring vocals from underground heavyweights Talib Kweli and MF Doom. MF Doom’s jazzy beat and amazing verses from Razah, Kweli, as well as Doom himself make this track remarkable. “Glow” has a very typical, but solid beat from 4th Disciple, and Razah effectively mixes political and street oriented subject matter. More political content is presented on the Sunz of Man reunion song “Smoking Gunz,” featuring Killah Priest. Although damaged by a bland hook, “Musical Murdah” is a good song featuring aggressive vocals from Hell Razah and biting social commentary mixed with battle raps from Ras Kass, a style he has unfortunately abandoned since being released from prison.
All of the songs on this album range from good to excellent, with the exception of “Yours Truly,” which is Razah’s feeble attempt at a club track. A song like “Yours Truly” is the typical outcome when an underground MC makes an overt appeal to mainstream audiences. While a good song, “Renaissance” (featuring Tragedy Khadafi, Timbo King, and R.A. the Rugged Man) comes off a bit underwhelming considering the caliber of featured MCs. R.A. the Rugged Man does, however, make another hot guest appearance, something he has been doing a lot of lately.
Renaissance Child is a very good debut from Hell Razah. The top-notch production and excellent lyricism should keep this album in rotation for quite a long time. With the first one out of the way, hopefully it will not take Hell Razah another decade to release his next album.
Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins
March 6th, 2007
Title: Live at Theresa’s, 1975
Artist: Junior Wells
Catalog No.: 787
These recordings, made on two cold Chicago nights in 1975, present the blues not as an artifact or polished product, but as a slice of space-time called Theresa’s. This little Southside club was where you could catch Junior Wells, any week he wasn’t on the road, between the late fifties and early eighties. Former Delmark producer Steve Tomashefsky sets the scene:
“You have to understand that Theresa’s could barely hold forty people, and most nights it cost only a dollar to get in. The drinks were cheap and there was no minimum. There was no stage as such. The musicians simply set up at one end of the room, with their amps and mike stands on the floor. There was no sound system. A string of blinking Christmas lights hung from the ceiling and framed the performing space.”
Tomashefsky, once a regular at the club, says Wells didn’t just sing or play harmonica—he played Theresa’s, holding court, bantering with the audience and filling the place with his outsized personality. Theresa’s is where Wells was most at ease and was “unquestionably the boss.” This comes through on these recordings, which retain his lengthy conversations with the audience and even a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for one of Wells’ friends.
The sound is rich and surprisingly well balanced considering the lack of a mixer. Then again, musicians this good can often make themselves sound better than most engineers could. Guitarists Phil Guy and Byther Smith form a prefect contrast—one’s tone dry and wiry, the other’s wet with reverb. The style is funky Chicago blues, with Wells occasionally quoting from one James Brown song or another. The playing is polished, but imperfect, loose and open-ended at times—it’s not about perfection, but feeling good. It’s the kind of live electric blues disc that is unlikely to be produced today, just as a Theresa’s (bulldozed in 1983 to make way for condos) is the kind of Southside blues club that may soon be gone for good.
Posted by Mack Hagood
March 6th, 2007
Title: After the Rain
Artist: Irma Thomas
Label: Rounder Records
Catalog No.: 612186
A few weeks ago the Soul Queen of New Orleans was given a new treasure to put in her royal coffers—a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. There may have been a couple of reasons After the Rain won this honor. It is likely that many voters thought that this formal appreciation was long overdue for a performer of Irma Thomas’s stature. There is also the fact that the album is just the sort of thing Grammy likes: tasteful, smooth and expertly produced.
Many things about the disc suggest it is another heartfelt musical response to Katrina, including the title and album cover, which presents Thomas in baptismal white, perhaps finding renewed faith after submersion. The first lines of the first song, Arthur Alexander’s “In the Middle of it All,” take on new meaning when recorded only months after the storm: “My house was once a happy house/But now it is a lonely house.” The song is performed in a subdued country style and includes a powerful slide solo by Sonny Landreth.
This mixture of expert musicianship and stylistic fusion is present throughout After the Rain. The core of Thomas’s backing band is three of New Orleans’ best musicians—pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist James Singleton and drummer Stanton Moore. Moore (of funk band Galactic) and Torkanowsky are known for rollicking, syncopated rhythms. The spare style they exhibit on songs like “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” is a real surprise that leaves plenty of room for improvisation by Singleton and banjo/guitar player Dirk Powell.
This is a very different Irma Thomas record from, say, those produced by Alan Toussaint. After the Rain sets Thomas’s ever-engaging, charismatic vocal performances in a variety of song choices, yet whether the source material is blues, gospel, R&B or soul, the result is always the sort of mid-tempo, “naturally” mic’ed and EQ’d recording that is currently considered tasteful by the industry. There is nothing wrong with this, but the buyer should be aware that this Grammy-winning “blues” record has much more in common with those of Norah Jones than Koko Taylor.
Posted by Mack Hagood
March 6th, 2007
Title: The Best of Scram Records
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Night Train International/Tuff City
Catalog No.: NTI CD-7046
As a kid in New Orleans in the 1970s and 80s, I grew up in a city where even the T.V. commercials were funky. There was the original Dr. John “Love that chicken from Popeye’s” jingle, which contained the line, “You’ll dig the way it’s fried.” The Time Saver convenience store chain had a jingle written in the great Crescent City tradition of nonsensical lyrics: “Time save… Save time… Time-Time Sava, C’mon!” But the greatest of the funk jam jingles belonged to a fish market on North Broad Avenue: “Seafood City… Very pretty!” This little number included the memorable line, “Stay wit Al Scramuzza an you’ll neva be a looza.” The commercials would always end with said Scramuzza, a mustachioed gent in a leisure suit waving to the camera—a funky fish market vision indelibly imprinted on my brain.
I thought this was all I needed to know of Al. He was the Seafood City man, the man who once invented a dance called the Crawfish. But there was another side to Mr. Scramuzza largely unknown to my generation: in the 1960s, Al was in the record business.
The Best of Scram Records documents a decade of releases on Scramuzza’s label, produced under the musical direction of legendary pianist (and New Orleans’ official Ambassador to Pakistan) Eddie Bo. Although varied in style, many of these singles reveal a soul side of New Orleans, a sound that most associate more closely with Memphis—further proving that when it comes to music, the city has always had more intermingling currents than the Mississippi. Sonny Jones’ “Seven Days” could be an Otis Redding tune, while the verses of his “I Wonder” share their rhythm and chord structure with Ray Charles’ “Georgia.” Fans of Walter “Wolfman” Washington can hear his earliest work as a bandleader on the Scram singles “Mary Jane” and “Goody Man.” Another well-known local artist, Benny Spellman has two cuts on this compilation, but they don’t approach the quality of his best work with Alan Toussaint on the Minit Records label.
The real discovery on the The Best of Scram Records is the Jades, a little-known vocal group in the Northern soul style of the Impressions or Temptations. Of the Jades’ four songs, “I’ve Got Love for My Baby” stands out for its hybrid sound—though the vocals could have come from Detroit or Chicago, the uncredited drummer plays the song like one long, funky breakbeat. In New Orleans, the funk undercurrent doesn’t stay submerged for long, bubbling up where you wouldn’t expect it—even in love songs and seafood commercials.
Scram Records is more of a footnote than a central story in the story of Crescent City music, but in a story as rich as New Orleans’, even the footnotes are well worth documenting. Al Scramuzza is a legendary (if comic) character, burned into my young mind thirty seconds at a time by T.V. It’s nice to have the rest of his story burned onto CD.
Posted by Mack Hagood
March 6th, 2007
Title: As the Tables Turn
Artist: Rob Swift
Label: Ablist Productions
Catalog No.: (pre-release DVD- number not available)
Date: 2007 (release date 3/13/2007)
“To DJ Rob Swift, a vinyl recording is not merely a flat disc, but a 4-dimensional field of events without boundary. As opposed to hearing a performance, listening to him scratch is akin to watching the quantum destruction of space-time”–Harry Allen, Hip Hop Activist and Media Assassin, and a member the the AAAMC’s National Advisory Board.
It is said that hip hop culture is built on the elements of emceeing, breakin, graffiti, and DJing. While emceeing, or rapping, is probably the most popular element, most rappers would quickly acknowledge the vital presence of the DJ. In spite of the importance of the DJ, his role has often been relegated to supporting the rapper. By keeping the DJ as the central focus, As the Tables Turn takes an alternative view of a hip hop artist’s career through the eyes of DJ Rob Swift.
Queens, New York native Rob Swift was raised in a family of DJs and began DJing at the age of twelve. His well-honed skills as a turntablist have enabled him to win top DJing competitions, have a successful career with the X-ecutioners, and collaborate with a diverse group of artists including Linkin Park, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Akineyle, and others. As the Tables Turn (a 90 min. documentary) is Swift’s video memoir of his development as a DJ within the matrix that is hip hop culture and influence.
The best thing about As the Tables Turn is that it gives voice to the experience of the “silent speaking partner” of hip hop music – the DJ/producer. Through Swift’s reflections and anecdotes from fellow X-ecutioners, Roc Raida and Mista Sinista, the viewer gets a glimpse inside of the process of how DJs design and practice their routines as well as how they try to remain grounded as friends while dealing with their increasing fame and success. Although the film suffers from a battle of focus between Rob Swift as an individual and Rob Swift as a member of the X-ecutioners collective, the insight that the viewer gains into the art of becoming a successful DJ helps move the pace along. In addition to detailing the career of Rob Swift and the X-ecutioners, the DJ battle footage, including battle footage of the West Coast-based Scratch Piklz, sheds light on the diversity of styles that exist within the larger DJ community.
As the Tables Turn is an insightful glimpse into the all-important role of the DJ in hip hop culture, as told by one of hip hop’s most respected turntablists, Rob Swift. Stories like his are an important addition to any hip hop library because they preserve the legacy of one of the original and central forces of hip hop culture. As the Tables Turn (The Rob Swift Story) accomplishes this through one of the best means possible–his own words.
Posted by fredara mareva
March 6th, 2007
Title: First Annual Gong DJ Battle for World Supremacy
Catalog No.: RAP0062
It could be argued that hip hop culture was built in the late 1970s around the central role of the DJ. Then the skill of the DJ was measured by how clever he could mix diverse records in his seamless repertoire. As the art evolved, DJs would battle each other to see who was the most creative with his abilities. In time, DJs began to take a no holds barred approach to wowing the audience and one-upping the competition. Grandmaster Roc Raida’s The First Annual Gong DJ Battle for World Supremacy is the latest battle episode to be preserved through film. Gong Battle is an unscripted and uncensored look at what goes on behind the scenes at DJ battles and includes a highlight reel of the best moments of the battle. In the end, Gong Battle represents that same historical proving ground where talented, but unknown DJs come and show their stuff before hip hop’s best in a battle for success and legitimacy for their craft.
Posted by fredara mareva
March 6th, 2007
Artist: Shirley Murdock
Catalog No.: TYSD-4155
Best known for her chart topping “As We Lay” (1986), Shirley Murdock began her career singing backup vocals for Roger Troutman’s Zapp Band. She became popular as a solo R&B artist when her debut solo album, Shirley Murdock (which featured “As We Lay”), went gold. She also released A Woman’s Point of View (1988) and Let There Be Love (1991) prior to her gospel debut album Home (2002) on Reverend T.D. Jakes’ Dexterity Sounds label. Murdock does not, however, consider herself a crossover artist. Her successful career in secular music opened the door to the career she really wanted in gospel music.
Soulfood is Murdock’s second gospel album and was definitely a family effort. Almost all of the tracks on this CD were written and produced by Murdock and her husband, Dale Anthony DeGroat, while the remix of “The F.O.G.” was produced by Murdock’s former Zapp bandmates Bigg Rob and Sure 2 B. Murdock and her husband set out to create a composition of tracks that would heal, revitalize, and nourish the souls of her fans. The songs they created were born of their own struggles, pain, and praise for the Creator. Those who have experienced cooking a soul food meal with family and are familiar with gospel music will agree that this CD is aptly titled.
Already garnering attention from radio, “I Love Me Better Than That” is a song that seeks to empower women and other fans of Murdock. Professing that there will be times when situations arise that require personal strength and love, the song iterates that it is only love of self that will get a person through. Sure to also top the charts is “The F.O.G.,” which stands for the Favor of God. Big Rob and Sure 2 B’s remix of the song combines funk with gospel and begets a track that is sure to move its listeners both spiritually and physically. There is no mistaking the distinctive sound of the Zapp band that has been added to this track–it can be appreciated by lovers of old school and gospel alike.
Soulfood is very well-produced and features original tracks sure to inspire and move the spirit. The highlight of the album, however, is Murdock’s legendary voice which can be heard on every track, loud and clear. Her fans will surely enjoy this CD.
Posted by Brandon Houston
March 6th, 2007
Title: Funky Funky New York: Rare and Unreissued New York Funk, 1969-1976
Label: Funky Delicacies/Tuff City
Catalog No: DEL CD 0073
New York is the setting of Funky Delicacies latest offering of regional early funk. The compilation calls to mind a myriad of images that comprise the general romantic idealism of the “Big Apple”—a mecca of hard hustling, bustling streets that draws millions to a city that touts “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Dreams of opportunity enticed many of the artists featured on FFNY, who left the south for a taste of the big city. FFNY is full of funky grooves, bombastic horns and sophisticated break beats that infuse the urban landscape with a touch of southern flavor.
One of the primary artists on FFNY is the Beaufort Express, featuring the southern stylings of the Pazant brothers and named after their hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina. Eddie (sax/woodwinds/vocals) and Al (trumpet/vocals) Pazant began their professional partnership in the NY-based group Puncho & His Latin Soul Brothers. Later branching off into their own group, the Beaufort Express, they incorporated a mixture of rhythm and blues, soul, Latin and jazz into their country funk roots. The brothers released several albums on independent labels and a slew of singles during this era and went on to work with artists such as Kool and the Gang, Della Reese, and James Brown. Today the Pazant brothers lead a thirteen piece ensemble that plays at the Cotton Club in Harlem every Monday night whenever they’re in town. Notable selections in this collection are “Mboga-Chakula” (Swahili for greasy greens) and “Chick-A-Boom.” The former track, written by legendary Stax composer Ed Bland, is a barrage of African and Latin influenced percussion with a breeze of funky horns interlaced within the beats that remains part of their live performance. The latter track, “Chick-A-Boom,” is bass and break-beat heavy with an undeniably catchy melody that has resurfaced (uncompensated) in several hip hop songs.
Another major contribution to this collection comes from the southern song writing duo Len and Linelle Williams. Settling in Harlem, Len operated a bar near the famed Apollo Theater where he would shop his songs. The duo would hire musicians to record their songs as de-facto publishing demos; however, limited distribution kept these singles underground until now. Some of the groups that gave life to the Williams’ collaborations are Family Portrait, King Solomon’s Advisor’s, John-El, and Frankie Freeman. Notable selections on FFNY are “Takin’ Inventory” by Family Portrait and “You Took Me Off and It Was Boss” by Jon-El. “Inventory” features a sophisticated arrangement of funky break beats and a smooth blend of group vocals that rival Sly & the Family Stone. Jon-El’s track is a bass-driven high energy selection that includes jazz-funk piano work with a splash of flute.
FFNY is a superb collection of regional funk that encapsulates a period of time when funk was super fly. Released on the Funky Delicacies label, a division Tuff City, FFNY puts New York on the proverbial funk map. Tuff City was founded in 1981 by Aaron Fuchs who saw the potential in the newly established genre hip hop. Since then Tuff City has worked with the Cold Crush Brother’s, Spoonie Gee, and many more. As Hip Hop became more mainstream Fuchs switched gears and begun a reissue campaign that given new life to obscure and previously unreleased blues, soul, funk, and R&B. For more information about this amazing catalog check out the Tuff City website.
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Editor’s note: The Pazant Brothers are featured in the Feb./March 2007 issue of Waxpoetics, an essential magazine for collectors of hip hop, jazz, funk, and soul.
March 6th, 2007
Title: It Can Happen to Anyone
Artist: Elisabeth Withers
Label: Blue Note
Catalog No.: 68171
Elisabeth Withers’ debut R&B album is organic. Rarely do you hear the synthesizers and digitalized instrumental ensembles that dominate most music today. It can Happen to Anyone is refreshing because Withers’ use of electric bass and strings demonstrates the beauty of simplicity, not to mention her background in Broadway. Portraying the free spirited Shug Avery in the musical version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Withers ventures outside of this arena into the music world with the same charisma.
“Simple Things,” the first track on the album, pays homage to the smaller things of life that bring joy, like smiling and waking up in the morning. The chorus, a chastisement for wasting time and energy on stressful situations in life, rounds out with a new found appreciation for the overlooked small pleasures in life. “Next to You,” the last song on the album, compliments “Simple Things” by adding love and affection to the simple things equals happiness equation. Withers describes the affection for her lover as childlike—pure and blissful—and unpolluted by the strife of life and adulthood. Withers also discusses sexuality and the challenge to love one’s self in “The World Ain’t Ready,” telling the story of a lesbian’s desire to please her father by marrying a man she does not love. The track, very delicately delivered but powerfully honest, is one of the strongest songs on the album.
The cuts “Get Your Shoes On” and what sounds like its sequel, “Sweat,” throw the flow of the album off track. Both songs are a mediocre attempt to appeal to a more contemporary audience, but the lyrics and music suffer. The content of these tracks, with a focus on clubbing and celebrities, temporarily lose the purity of Withers’ sound. There is no distinction here from other R&B party jams about the same subjects.
Overall, It can Happen to Anyone offers a breath of fresh air for comtemporary R&B, placing Withers in the company of songbirds like India.Arie and Erika Badu. The majority of the songs on the CD tell an individual story but are also interconnected with the rest of the album, requiring a special talent that Withers easily displays. Her natural, unforced lyrical flow and delivery are relaxing and pleasant to the ear. Withers’ debut album has substance and delivers food for the soul.
Posted by Regina N. Barnett
March 6th, 2007
Artist: Robert Randolph & The Family Band
Label: Dare/Warner Bros.
Catalog No.: R 585216
The steel guitar has played an important role in sculpting the sound of many genres of music. Most predominately, it is associated with putting a ‘twang’ in country music through the sounds of the lap and pedal steel guitar, as well as the ‘whine’ that is found within the Hawaiian “slack key guitar” tradition of Hawaiian music. The steel guitar serves these genres of music in a very identifiable, yet, supporting role. A unique contrast to the background role of this instrument is found within the African American House of God Keith Dominion Pentecostal church, where the steel guitar is placed front and center of the church’s music and worship service. This “sacred steel” tradition has played a leading role in the House of God as well as the Church of the Living God for several decades.
The term “sacred steel” refers to two different types of steel guitar: the lap steel guitar and pedal steel guitar. The notion of “steel” refers to the steel bar that is used in the left hand of the musician on both of these instruments. When playing the lap steel the ring finger and pinky wrap around the volume knob that is rocked back and forth producing an effect called the “volume swell.” The pedal steel creates this same effect but is a more elaborate version of the lap steel that was introduced into the church in 1973 by Maurice “Ted” Beard (cf. Robert L. Stone). While the lap steel focuses more on single-line phrases, a pedal steel allows for more chords and a more rhythmic approach that seeks to imitate and inspire the shouts, stomps, rhythm and cries that are heard during worship.
Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida (Arhoolie Records, 1997, prod. by Robert Stone) was the first CD compilation to focus on the pioneers of both the pedal and lap steel guitar such as Willie Eason and Henry Nelson. It was these musicians, among others (in particular pedal steel guitarists Maurice “Ted” Beard and Calvin Cooke), who have passed down the tradition to pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph, a member of the House of God church in Maplewood, New Jersey. Randolph is responsible for taking this tradition outside of the church and into the secular world of Manhattan night clubs and the commercial recording industry. This transition can be examined through Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s Live at the Wetlands (2002), Unclassified (2003), and their latest studio release, Colorblind.
Live at the Wetlands was recorded in a NYC nightclub and the band immediately brought the audience to their feet with a foot stomping ‘march.’ Although this was not The House of God church, Randolph was stirring the sounds of the church inside the club and guiding the audience the entire way. One might ask, then, if Robert Randolph & the Family Band can successfully translate their live performances into a studio recording. In the opening moments of their latest release, Colorblind, this question is answered. “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” makes it clear that Randolph has not abandoned his gospel roots since the hand claps, foot stomping, and call and response are still prominent throughout the song. It is also evident in his words and in the variety of genres he touches on throughout the song that Randolph is not interested in labels or classification. The music and its ability to move the audience are of the utmost importance. His guitar has less of a pedal steel reflection than his predecessors from the House of God. Instead, his tone contains more of the heavy distortion and ‘wah-wah’ effect that is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton rather than Willie Eason. His lead solos also reflect more of this rock guitar influence with his fast paced and staccato attack on the guitar. In fact, Clapton himself trades guitar solos with Randolph on their rendition of the Doobie Brothers classic “Jesus is Just Alright.” The quilting of musical genres is also demonstrated in the heavily funk influenced tune “Deliver Me,” which is infused with spiritual reflections.
Colorblind offers an excellent mix of the polished studio sound and the spirituality and intensity that Robert Randolph & the Family Band bring to their music. The variety of musical genres continues throughout the album with the R&B infused “Blessed” and the soulful sounds of “Angels.” It is interesting to hear the volume swells and sliding pitch elevation the pedal steel provides when placed in the context of these genres and heavily produced arrangements. Unfortunately, the charm of the volume swells and the pedal steel’s ability to mimic the human voice is not as evident in this polished setting. Instead of taking center stage, the pedal steel provides more of a standard rhythm and solo accompaniment found in mainstream popular music. With that said, Randolph provides an interesting balance when bringing the sacred steel tradition to the confines of the recording studio.
It is clear that Robert Randolph & the Family Band are trying to find out how their past influence in the House of God Church can interact with the present and future. Their latest album succeeds in fulfilling the needs of the commercial recording industry, without abandoning their roots in the House of God and the sacred steel tradition. As Randolph’s popularity grows, it is hopeful that the popularity and recognition of the rich sacred steel tradition will be carried on as well.
For additional information on the sacred steel tradition, check out the documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches (dir. by Robert Stone; Arhoolie Foundation, 2001).
Posted by Christopher Mulé
Editor’s note: this review is excerpted from a much longer article by the author.
March 6th, 2007
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