[4 April 2004]
Not since Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble’s Couldn’t Stand the Weatherhas a guitar band surfaced that possessed such raw power and conviction. Robert Randolph and the Family Band are a powerhouse blues/R&B/soul/classic rock band and Unclassified a tour de force.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band have been justifiably compared to such legends as Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone, as well as more contemporary artists like the North Mississippi All Stars and the current incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band. All that aside, one thing is for certain, provided everyone takes good care of themselves out on the road, Robert Randolph and the Family Band are here to stay, and will become a permanent fixture on the summer festival and jam band scene.
Randolph acquired his soulful and frenetic steel guitar chops, as well as his bandmates (also his cousins) bassist Danyel Morgan and drummer Marcus Randolph, playing in the church band at the House of God Church in Orange, New Jersey. As fate would have it, a demo of Randolph’s made its way into the hands of the North Mississippi All Stars. The All Stars asked Randolph and band to open for them at the Bowery Ballroom in New York where Medeski of the jazz trio, Medeski Martin and Wood, saw them. Medeski then asked Robert Randolph to play on The Word, a recent and hip gospel release. The rest is, as they say, history.
The single, “Soul Refreshing”, is a light-hearted, groovy, feel good-tune in the vein of Al Green or perhaps even James Taylor. The song is so sweet you find yourself looking for reasons not to like it. But there are none. And “Soul Refreshing” is as light and airy as it gets on Unclassified, which, frankly, makes the song even more likable. It’s a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the rhythmic and soulful intensity.
The album opener, “Going in the Right Direction”, is a gospel-tinged, two steppin’, inspirational, tune that simply burns. Randolph riffs and sings like a young Hendrix. The difference? Randolph smiles when he plays and sings. Of course, I don’t know this for certain, but it sure sounds like he’s smiling. The next track, “I Need More Love”, is a funky number that brings to mind the best of ‘70s funk and R&B, P-Funk, Earth, Wind, and Fire, War, the Ohio Players, all of it. This stuff is in Randolph’s blood. And every song on this album, except the instrumental jam tune, “Calypso”, written by John Ginty and Marcus Randolph, was either written or co-written by Robert Randolph.
“Nobody” is another barnburner, with thrilling tempo changes, reminiscent of War. Randolph wears it out on steel guitar. He concludes by quoting the Hendrix classic, also recorded convincingly by Stevie Ray Vaughn, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”.
“Squeeze”, the fifth track, is a rocking instrumental akin to something Eric Johnson might have done in his heyday, but with heavy doses of soul. There are two other instrumentals on the album, “Calypso” and “Run for Your Life”, for which the entire band gets writing credits. Both are extended jams that find the musicians stretching to their heart’s content. John Ginty plays a funky and hot solo on B-3. “Run for Your Life”, the final track, is another gospel-tinged, two-stepper, almost identical to the album opener, “Goin’ in the Right Direction”. It is easy to imagine Randolph and family concluding church services in much the same way.
Ricky Fowler and Lenesha Randolph sing the Stevie Wonder inspired “Smile”, which, oddly enough, fits quite well amidst this potpourri of musical styles.
The one quality that holds it all together is joyousness. Is it the church and gospel roots that have inspired that joy? If so, maybe it’s time more musicians started going to church. This album is fantastic.