Album: The Word

The Word, Ropeadope
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The Independent Culture

The Word is a collaboration between the keyboardist John Medeski (of the Blue Note jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood), the pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph and the North Mississippi Allstars, prompted by Medeski and the NMA guitarist Luther Dickinson's shared interest in Sacred Steel music, a bluesy branch of gospel so arcane, it had been featured previously only on two compilations from the roots archive label Arhoolie. By luck, their paths crossed with that of Randolph, a black 22-year-old pedal steel virtuoso who had played on Arhoolie's Sacred Steel Live, and they quickly set about recording the hymns and jams that constitute The Word. Randolph is clearly the star here, peeling off fluid runs and fluttering trills with a dynamism that recalls the Burritos' Al Perkins and occasionally even the late Duane Allman. His work on "Without God" is dazzling, with a lengthy, impassioned intro solo that's the equivalent of a gospel preacher's warming-up of his congregation, resolving after three or four minutes into a jolly, happy-clappy groove. Usually in Sacred Steel, the pedal steel guitar replaces the organ, but here Randolph plays in tandem with Medeski's pump organ on the old traditional song "Blood on that Rock", propelling it elastically into the future. Fascinating for a while, it's a form that can all too easily slip into trudging blues jams; but if you fancy hearing "I'll Fly Away", that lovely old hymn from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, done as an Allman Brothers-style boogie workout, this is the album for you.