[15 July 2013]
I’ve seen them live. The gospel-infused funky rock roots band that commandingly whips a crowd of drug-laced earth muffins and hopheads into some sort of a revivalist frenzy. .. that’s the Family Band I’ve seen. If you haven’t witnessed the fury of true black gospel music (from ANY denomination) in the church house on any given Sunday morning in the South, then think of the effect James Brown had on Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers. Even though that scene in the movie is farcical, it pretty much sums up the frantic zeal gospel music from the southern inner cities evokes ... complete with gymnastics from the geriatric portion of the congregation. This ability to move the crowd to that level of excitement is why Randolph’s name is frequently in huge font on the posters of the festivals he and the Family Band play. This is the bread and butter of what makes him a superstar ... hard touring. Well that, and the fact he can whip a pedal steel like no one else.
Since his name was first heralded just over a decade ago, the spinsters have dealt Randolph quite a few cringeworthy titles along the way. Once the PR machine got their hands on him, he was the next Clapton. The next Ry Cooder by way of Leo Nocentelli. My favorite promo one-sheet hype-line is “The Jimi Hendrix of Pedal Steel”. That’s quite a reach stylistically, and a reach that is way off course. Robert Randolph is the Robert Randolph of pedal steel. Comparing an originator to another originator de-values one of them, and that’s just mean. These things happen, though. Journalists seek sensational headlines, purposefully luring you in to the hype ‘regurgatory’ for their personal gain. Because Robert Randolph’s pedal-steel skills are truly original in the framework of rock and funk, it’s easy to sensationalize him. The expectations are always high for the groundbreakers. I expected the next triumph, too. Lickety Split let me down.
The only problem here is material, and that’s a big problem when it almost spans the entire album. I’m sure I would have a different opinion of these songs if I were hearing them live, caught up in the heated moment amidst a haze of ganja smoke, four-day-old sweaty BO, sandalwood vapors, and a blatant overuse of the word ‘man’ heard throughout the crowd. I can see where the anthemic opener “Amped Up” would flip folks out thanks to the aerobic rhythms and testosterone-inspired declarations. If Carlos Santana were to join the Family Band on stage for “Take the Party”, the call from Randolph and the answer from Santana’s guitar would make more sense. “Love Rollercoaster” would be a brutal encore number, but as a studio track? Not so much. “Blacky Joe” embarrassed me for them.
It’s important to point out the performances on Lickety Split are smokin’. Stellar musicianship is this record’s cornerstone, as well as the engineering and mixing from Eddie Kramer and Jim Scott, respectively. Everyone gets A’s on how they executed their performances, and I’ll even tout the solos from Randolph to be his most exploratory and virile. As it stands, this selection of songs did not translate well to the sterile environment of the studio, and, because of that, the final product falls flat on feeling the spirit.