Robert Randolph: 'Playing the pedal steel guitar is like squeezing orange juice'

He's young, black and musically gifted. So what makes Robert Randolph stand out from the crowd? Church, says Julian Piper
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The Independent Culture

"Are you ready to testify? Are you READEEEEEE...?" It's around 11pm on a Saturday night in the Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street, New York City, and make no mistake, Robert Randolph is in his church. The White Stripes played here two days before and although the Stones and Paul McCartney have all used the Roseland to hold court, it's difficult to imagine either act having the electric audience rapport that Randolph achieves. After his shattering two-and-a-half-hour set, only a heathen would dare not to respond in kind.

It's unlikely that anyone has ever played a 13-string pedal steel behind their head or knelt down as if taking Holy Communion while they do it, and this 25 year-old son of a small New Jersey church deacon, is gifted with a technique that is simply mind-boggling.

There's nothing new about pedal steel guitars, of course: - they've been the staple backing on just about every piece of Nashville schmaltz over the course of the last half-century. However, most of the Roseland audience will probably be totally new to the sounds of "Sacred Steel", quietly nurtured in roof-raising black churches by virtuosos like Ted Beard, Chuckie Campbell and Calvin Cooke.

Fronting a rock band with a pedal steel, singing as though he was in church, but playing like he was still back in the alley, no one has ever played quite like Robert Randolph.

"The history of the music that black people like to listen to is supposed to be smooth - Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston," Randolph explains back in his home town of Orange, New Jersey, "but if you go to church, that all changes. In church everything is loud: they sing loud, clap loud, shout loud. But outside you have to be cool, listen to R&B. So we've had a lot of black audiences gravitate towards us just because I'm not singing negative lyrics and they can relate to our music; I'm from the same background as a lot of these people, know the same things but know not to fall into the same trap."

Although it's only half an hour's drive across the Hudson river, the hollow Main Street of Orange, New Jersey and its wide range of "99c Bargain Stores" is a long way from the high-rise opulence of downtown Manhattan. It's unseasonably warm here, but only a few people stroll aimlessly up and down the sidewalk, and apart from the stoned cackling of a couple of black kids, smiles seem well out of fashion.

A few blocks away, nestling inconspicuously between tidy clapboard houses in a quiet leafy road, is the small red brick chapel that is the House of God. As usual around midday on Sunday, the doors are opening for business.

This is where the Randolph Family Band started out, Robert's nephew Marcus on drums and Robert on the pedal steel. If Soul ever needed a home, then this must be it.

After watching his father Everette put on a performance worthy of James Brown (by the end his suit was drenched in sweat, and the small congregation emotionally drained), it's obvious that Robert Randolph's band is aptly named.

"I remember when the Pastor anointed his hands," says Everette, "Robert was already a gifted child; when only six years old he could recite the whole eleventh chapter of Hebrews. As soon as he took on this instrument, he learnt so quickly that everyone was looking at him in amazement. Ted Beard told me that Robert was special and that people like him only come around once in a blue moon."

"I've always been different," Randolph comments, "always been the one that feels whatever I do, [it] has to be the cool thing. That's probably how I got to be where I am. I was always the leader so if I told my friends that I was going to stay in at home practising the steel rather than running around the streets, they just accepted it. I was running wild for a time - street gangs, drugs, people getting murdered, having to deal with people with a violent mentality. All that was going on where I lived. I was just lucky because I was taught better; my aunts and uncles would all give me a hard time about what I was doing and when it all began piling up, it began to make sense."

He believes that "the more we get out to the black market, the more they'll be interested. I'm more connected to people that play soulfully, I don't need to play every note, every scale. Growing up as I did playing in church was like making fresh orange juice: you have to squeeze everything you can out of every note because you have to connect."

In the tradition of the very greatest black artists who started out in church - Little Richard, James Brown, Aretha Franklin - the way things are looking Robert Randolph might just be the next.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band play the Borderline, London W1 (020 7734 2095), 20 Jan

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