[28 July 2010]
The Road. It’s not always a pretty place. Just ask musicians: Bob Seger had to “Turn the Page”; Jackson Brown was “Running on Empty”; Sammy Hagar couldn’t “Drive 55”. Tenacious D’s Jack Black sums it up best: “The road is fuckin’ hard / The road is fuckin’ tough / There’s no question that / It is rough, rough stuff.” Remember, it’s a Stairway to Heaven”, not a street.
Yes, the beaten path has long been a metaphor for numbing repetition and internal alienation, but it’s also functioned as a symbol of possibilities. For Robert Randolph and the Family Band, it’s the latter, and their third studio album, We Walk This Road, is proof. Indeed, We Walk This Road finds virtuoso steel guitarist Robert Randolph and company finally hitting their studio groove, but, as the title implies, it also serves as a testimony to the hardships and tribulations of hitting the pavement.
The themes on Road are all about struggle—struggle with poverty, struggle with oppression, struggle with war, struggle with keeping the faith. And Randolph doesn’t claim to be the first to do so—the concept of the album is rooted in this history. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, Randolph sat down with musical archivists, filtering through blues, folk, gospel, and field recordings, using the results of their excavations as inspiration for the 11 tracks on the album (in addition to six archival segues, which link the tracks).
The Family Band has never been more of a family. The process was truly collaborative—in addition to reviving these ancient tracks, Randolph also worked with multiple songwriters (Tonio K, Peter Case), featured guest musicians (Ben Harper, Leon Russell, Doyle Bramhall II, Jim Keltner), and covered songs by three of rock music’s most legendary musicians: John Lennon (“I Don’t Wanna Be a Solider Mama”, Prince (“Walk Don’t Walk”), and Bob Dylan (“Shot of Love”). We Walk This Road is a huge undertaking, and the results are definitely worth the strain.
The album opens with the first crackling segue, a bone-chilling gospel/blues chant which Randolph and the band then turn into “Traveling Shoes”. Burnett’s influence behind the boards is felt immediately, with Marcus Randolph’s drums pounding, bone-dry and big. It’s a stellar track with a sweltering groove—most importantly, it does exactly what the album aspires toward: merging the ancient and the current, proving the Road hasn’t changed a bit. The inspired “No, no, no, no / No, no, no” chant sounds like the Blues incarnate, and Randolph’s whirring pedal steel is the sound of pain filtered through an instrument.
Boy, this guy can play. Not that there was any doubt before this album, but Randolph seriously kicks things into another level on We Walk This Road. On the revved-up “Shot of Love”, he literally sounds possessed, waves of wah-wah rounding off every dense pedal steel riff with an extra shot of ache. And he can do the slow jams, too; his call and response fills with the vocals on “I Still Belong to Jesus” are brimming with the tastefulness of a player twice his senior.
On a track like “Back to the Wall”, the marriage of old and new is astonishing. So much so, it’s almost hard to tell when the track was produced. It carries the raw, direct feel of a Burnett recording, the honest blues of a ‘60s protest song, and a current, vibrant hip-hop feel, particularly in the drums, which crackle with the sweat of desert heat.
You’ll do so much walking over the course of the album’s 56 minutes, you might want to bring a change of shoes, too. At the end of the proceedings, it’s hard not to feel a little exhausted. But that comes with the territory when the Road calls your number.