Robert Randolph welcomes you to his sprawling tent
Bands like Robert Randolph and the Family Band tend to get the shaft from both industry big-shots and the pajama-clad blog dorks who wish they were same, thanks to the decided anti-hipster vibe to their material. Randolph’s is a mighty funky stew with a good degree of meat-and-potatoesness to it; it’s at once familiar and blood-rattling but something that can have trouble grabbing much of a market foothold in a crowded marketplace. Major label aside, Randolph often finds himself in the same boat as, say, the Hold Steady or Lucero: These guys sound great, but where the hell do we tuck them? Conventional wisdom says the modern world just isn’t as friendly to bands who don’t have names constructed from artful nonsense.
The pedal steel maestro Randolph, then, is forced to do this thing that bands used to do, which is tour a whole really lot. They’ve done so with great efficiency. The Family Band (loaded with his actual cousins) is a live monster, disciples of the churches of Prince, Sly Stone, and James Brown. The band’s debut, Unclassified, with its blues and gospel emphases put them decisively on the radar; Colorblind, its more focused, expansive and paint-peeling-off-the-damn-walls follow-up, opens them up to the lands of New Orleans soul, classic rock, and extremely mighty funk. These songs are practically begging to be sampled live, but Randolph and band have thoughtfully packed plenty of joyful noise in here to tide you over.
Somewhat refreshingly, Randolph is aspiring to a big a tent on Colorblind; indeed, here’s a guy who regularly covers Michael Jackson sans irony and is responsible for at least one football-night theme song. Randolph acknowledges those wide-reaching aspirations on opener “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That”, a ref-whistle-powered stomp that opens up the party to anyone and everyone: “Hollywood or in the ‘hood/ Block party, frat party, backyard or boulevard,” he howls as a chorus gleefully replies “It don’t matter!” Somewhere between a military march, halftime show and a Crescent City stompfest, it’s just dirty enough to be funky, just sunshiney enough at chorus time to soar in whatever crowd the band finds itself in front of that night (aside from their personal stance, the title probably refers to both the multiracial band and its equally sprawling fan base).
“Ain’t Nothing Wrong”, in fact, kicks off a monster opening set with something for everyone: the Sly-rock of “Deliver Me” starts and stops at exactly the right spots, with the funk-gospel choir lurking in the background. The vampy, rollicking “Diane” name-checks Kiss, throws in bursts of shiny horn, and never lets the wah-wah guitar vanish for more than a few bars.
Live, Randolph applies his swamp-fox choogle to cover songs a lot; his ability to find the groovy underbelly in a track has served him well, even when he’s digging around in “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. Colorblind sees him corraling those instincts a bit, though there’s a frothy and worthy stab at “Jesus Is Just Alright” with Eric Clapton that speaks to Randolph’s rep as a bandleader—his presence and influence helped briefly wake Eric up out of his nap. Randolph also nails Sly Stone’s own “Thankful N’ Thoughtful” and calls in a favor from Dave Matthews and Leroi Moore on “Love Is the Only Way”.
Colorblind‘s obligatory ballads tend to drag, and God knows such aggressive love-is-all positivity, especially coming from a guy who got his start preaching Pentecostal goodness, can be a tough sell among the snifflier segment of the music elite. But Randolph’s aspirations are big ones, and his band, songwriting and fingers are up to the task—it’s easy to see him appealing to the Bonnaroo, Clapton and ESPN sets all at once. It’s crowded in the tent, but well worth stopping by.