It’s a packed house at Antone’s on a Monday night and with good reason. A classic juke joint like this is an ideal kind of place to see a modern-day blues master like Robert Randolph. This is especially true since Randolph cites Stevie Ray Vaughan as a major influence, and there just so happens to be an SRV shrine in the corner of the venue. Sparks always fly when next-generation talent gets the chance to play at a spot made famous by previous legends, and so it is tonight.
Randolph is poised for a big year with the imminent release of a great new album, We Walk This Road, produced by T Bone Walker. The collaboration hints at what fans have known for years, which is that pedal steel maestro Randolph is tuned into a serious old school blues tradition. But Randolph and his Family Band (featuring cousins Marcus Randolph on drums and Danyel Morgan on bass, with sister Lenesha on backing vocals) also blend in more modern influences from funk to hip-hop to create a fresh and vibrant take on the blues.
With the density of the crowd, it appears Randolph and company are ready to move up to a larger Austin venue like La Zona Rosa or Stubbs BBQ. But there’s something about a full house at Antone’s that translates into a great vibe and makes those Shiner Bocks even more refreshing. The band opens with the new album’s “Traveling Shoes”, a mid-tempo number with a gospel vibe that gives Randolph a chance to get that pedal steel guitar warmed up. He and Lenesha trade vocals and harmonies, quickly establishing a familiar chemistry. Things start to heat up during an instrumental jam powered by Morgan’s groovy low end, where the sound takes on a distinctive “Turn on Your Lovelight” flavor that gets the crowd moving.
Another early highlight arrives with the new “If I Had My Way”, derived from an old Blind Willie Johnson song (and assisted by Ben Harper in the studio recording). It’s got a funky groove, over which Randolph throws down a series of tasty licks. “If I had my way, no suffering in this land,” sings Randolph like a preacher who only wants to shepherd his flock to the Promised Land. This cathartic vibration infuses the set more and more throughout the evening. The song becomes a true band exercise when Morgan sings the second verse and Lenesha takes the third. The song’s energy grows with each verse.
The dance party mood is increased exponentially when the band brings up a slew of ladies to boogie onstage during a smoking cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic “Shake Your Hips”. The band has admitted they put this song into the repertoire to draw more ladies to the shows, and it’s certainly worked. Randolph and the band crank this one up way past the level of what the Stones recorded on Exile on Main Street, turning the tune into a party anthem and using it for a big crowd-pleasing jam.
Later, Randolph switches over to a sparkly red Telecaster for another funky blues rocker that turns into a stellar jam where Randolph, Morgan and a third guitarist demonstrate a superb chemistry in keeping the jam building and grooving. There’s also a breakdown where Lenesha testifies in deeply soulful style. Randolph stays on the Tele as the band rolls out another gem of a tune with a sweet melodic groove that sounds somewhat similar to “Midnight in Harlem”, a great new song from the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band, written by their backing vocalist Mike Mattison. Randolph and Mattison both came of musical age in New York City, so there must be some kind of common ground. This jam’s groove has a deep melodic flavor that is another big crowd pleaser.
Morgan steps up with some serious low-end funk jamming on a cover of “Maggie’s Farm”, Bob Dylan’s classic ode to the proletariat’s lament. The band’s unidentified keyboardist delivers a great vocal, and the band transforms the tune into yet another funky, bluesy jam. Another highlight occurs when the band jams “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” into Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, transforming the latter into a hot jam vehicle. Randolph transmogrifies the chorus melody into a bluesy lick on the pedal steel, demonstrating a great skill for finding the blues wherever they may lie.
Randolph also teases Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” at one point, a song which he’s been known to perform with incendiary results. But it’s another Hendrix classic that brings the house down when Randolph leads the band in rocking out on “Purple Haze”, throwing out licks of molten psychedelic lava that are much to the delight of the audience.
Randolph dedicates the encore to positivity, saying that if anyone has lost their job, or had their stocks crash or been affected by the oil spill, “Don’t let nobody stop you.” The band rocks another feel good groove, but it’s mere prelude to the next song, “Tore Up”, which becomes one of the hottest tunes of the night. The high-energy funk rocker ignites the crowd once more, with Randolph tearing it up on pedal steel and then getting up and doing some dancing of his own, while singing with great gusto.
We Walk This Road is arguably Randolph’s best album yet, and the band’s live show is continuing to grow more and more dynamic. These factors make it appear that that the band’s prime era is only just beginning.