Robert Randolph | The Family Plan

"Y'all ready for ‘The March'?" Randolph asks on Live at the Wetlands, before breaking into a quick-picking rollicking soul jam so identifiable with this lap pedal steel prodigy, that it set the tone for his career to present.

 

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Robert Randolph's location in the Grammy-worthy hierarchy was secure long before he stepped onto the stage of the 2006 Grammys for a show-stealing Sly and the Family Stone tribute, where he was flanked by Sly, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am, among others.

His location was etched in stone long before Clapton requested to sit in and record new tracks for his latest offering Colorblind and long before Grammy nominations; before he received tour invites from Santana, the Allman Brothers, and Dave Matthews; before his collaborations with John Medeski and the North Mississippi All Stars; and, of course, before his yearly sets at Bonnaroo.

Yes, before all of this, there was "The March."

"Y'all ready for ‘The March'?" Randolph asks on Live at the Wetlands, before breaking into a quick-picking rollicking soul jam so identifiable with this lap pedal steel prodigy, that it set the tone for his career to present. "The March" is both identifiable and immediate—and immediate is a word so identifiable with Randolph.

Early on, he heard Stevie Ray Vaughn and his interest was immediately peaked. Born into a musical North Jersey family (cousins Danyel Morgan [bass/vocals], Marcus Randolph [drums], and Long Islander Jason Crosby [Hammond B-3 organ, piano] round out the rest of the "Family Band"), Randolph's interest in the lap pedal steel had humble but spiritual beginnings. "I just wanted to be a player in church." Randolph says on a recent stop on the tour with the Black Crowes. "Our church, the House of God [Orange, New Jersey] is where I grew up watching guys play the pedal steel guitar. Then when I started to play the bars, I started to meet some people."

An immediate impact on the industry followed, with musicians literally pouring out of the woodwork to play with him. Matthews was an early supporter, saying, "When I first saw Robert, what struck me was this beautiful sincerity in what he's doing."

The singer-songwriter was among the most recent guests on Randolph's latest disc Colorblind. "We only had three guests [on Colorblind]: Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, and Leela James," says Randolph. "It's like when Duane Allman came out. When he first appeared, everyone wanted to play with him. [Carlos] Santana and [Steven] Tyler wanted to do something, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work."

He didn't exactly turn down Tyler and Santana, but instead he—and Colorblind producer Tommy Sims—opted to save those rough drafts for a rainy day. "Sometimes it works right away and sometimes you save those songs for later down the road. If I could, I'd have put out a double album."

Legendary Sims had a big part in shaping the project, which includes Clapton on a cover of the Byrds' "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me" and Matthews on a tune entitled "Love Is the Only Way."

"Tommy is one of the greatest musicians to work with," Randolph says of the producer who in the past has played with Springsteen and written and produced songs for Bonnie Raitt, the Neville Brothers, and Susan Tedeschi, among others. In 1996, Sims won a Grammy for co-writing Clapton‘s "Change the World."

Randolph sounds literally smitten with Sims. "He's a true talent. He has so many different faces. We're still working on songs. The CD is done and we're still working on things together."

While he recognizes the clout of the artists who desire to work with him, Randolph isn't caught up in the hoopla that goes with it. Not versed in Musicology 101, he isn't about to recite set lists from influential shows that changed his life, his focus, his direction. "I'd never been to a concert before the year 2000. So I have no great concert memories or a memorable show [that inspired me]. I watched all the old guys on lap pedal steel play and I can tell you a hundred stories of those guys bringing the house down."

Wetlands' follow-up Unclassified propelled the Southern-sounding player into a limelight long reserved for the likes of Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jonny Lang: white guitarists playing the blues. Perhaps Randolph believed it was time to bring the tradition back to what Robert Johnson invented, Jimi Hendrix redefined, and white blues guitarists who've never come anywhere near the compromises that brought Johnson to the soul-searching "crossroads" and Hendrix an early death have tried to master. Judging from the title of Randolph's latest release, perhaps it's just about getting down to the boogie woogie of soul and spirituality. "[The] coolest thing is the energy and the vibe and how close a crowd is," he says, "and getting closer with my band."

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