God Loves Pedal Steel
For the last few years, Sacred Steel has become somewhat popular in the music world. How could it not? It’s rock and roll with a pedal or lap steel guitar as the focus, and even though most of the songs are gospel in nature, they can cross over into the secular world without a lot of hand-wringing from either camp. Jams that can last as long as anything the Allman Brothers can muster are standard, but the Steel groove is based on trance blues, sucking you into the groove and keeping you there regardless of what happens around you. This is the music that makes folks dance and shout in the House of God division of the Pentecostal Church. Be it instrumental jams or music with vocal accompaniment, this type of music is easy to digest and hard to sit still to.
Robert Randolph is the most well-known Sacred Steeler, since he easily breezed into the secular world by creating secular songs. His Live at the Wetlands album is a classic, mixing gospel overtones with his rock infusion. But there are (and were) plenty who chose to stay church-oriented and let their music stay strictly in gospel boundaries. Arguably the biggest stars in that vein are the Campbell Brothers. And their current album, aptly titled Can You Feel It? is a testimony (no pun intended) to both their staying power and to finding new ways of spreading the word of the Lord, while making their congregation get off their respective asses in the process.
There are four actual Campbell brothers at work here: Chuck, who plays pedal steel, Darick, the lap steel guitarist, Phillip, the electric guitarist, and Carlton, chief of the engine room (drums). They also employ Malcom Kirby on bass, who signed on with the band one week after graduating the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY (with a degree in bass studies). Nepotism stretches out in the family as cousin Denise Brown contributes some fiery vocals on select tracks. The band forms a cohesive unit that can play tight, taut, in-the-pocket rhythms combined with solos that are always interesting. In some ways, Sacred Steel can be put in the same category as jamband music.
Album producer John Medeski, who is noted as a jazz keyboardist, also contributes his talents here. Medeski is no stranger to Sacred Steel. He and North Mississippi Allstars leader Luther Dickinson combined to form the one-album offing THE WORD, which also included Chris Chew and Cody Dickinson of the Allstars, as well as none other than Randolph.
Talent strikes a high note on the opener, “Frammin’”, an instrumental jam that wastes little time in showcasing the Campbell brothers’ chops. Another instrumental with bite is “Good All the Time”, a funky booty-shaker (can they do that in church?). “Amazing Grace”, one of two public domain songs here, is slow and slinky, but not sexy. The other public domain song is “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around”, which provides a nice respite from some of the faster songs. The Campbells also tackle a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and you can hear the two steel guitars sounding like vocals in tone and inflection. Oh, and not forgetting Ms. Brown—her vocals on the slow-to-fast “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” is the absolute high point of the album.
Sacred Steel music has toiled underground for a number of years—that is, until Robert Randolph broke through the invisible curtain to get himself and his brand of music noticed. Those who were in-the-know about Sacred Steel are glad that it’s now an accepted part of mainstream music, even with gospel attached. (Hell, isn’t that what the Blind Boys of Alabama managed to do with straight gospel for the last five years?) Can You Feel It? is an album that covers both gospel and Sacred Steel, but it’s well meant for the secular world. The Campbell Brothers are at the top of their game here, and the music, the groove, and the message will reverberate through your body for a long, long time.
// Notes from the Road
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