We Walk This Road
Artist: Robert Randolph and the Family Band
Label: Warner Brothers
Time: 17 tracks/56 min.
A decade has passed since Robert Randolph began playing clubs in New York City, soon after attracting national attention and nods of approval from blues veterans like Eric Clapton and B.B. King. A virtuoso on pedal steel guitar from the get-go, Robert has a voice on his instrument unlike any other, at times wailing like a gospel gypsy or chanting eerily like a Middle Eastern songstress. As can be expected, most efforts have focused primarily on his instrumental faculty. We Walk This Road, helmed by the indomitable T-Bone Burnett, places the focus on the songs, and offers a wide angle view of this outstanding blues/rock/soul/gospel pedal steel wizard.
No doubt that some listeners will find this record too sedate, with a sameness in tone and texture, and lacking in guitar razzle-dazzle, especially when compared to earlier live and instrumental efforts. It's true that Randolph's guitar, while not buried in the mix, is more on par with other instruments, and not front and center, and it takes patience, and a number of repeat plays, before serenity and haze give way to subtlety and serendipity.
Snippets of traditional gospel blues melodies, by Mitchell's Christian Singers and Blind Willie Johnson, are woven throughout the record, and lend the project a sense of tradition and history, along with a rag-tag theme. There is some incandescent guitar playing, but you have to listen carefully to find it. For a few examples, check out the first solo on "Back to the Wall," appearing around 1:47 into the track, and the second solo, at the 2:45 mark, or the interplay on Bob Dylan's "Shot of Love."
The songs have both a gospel heart and a social conscious. "I'm Not Listening" could be addressed to a politician or to the information overloaded society we live in. The title of John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna be a Soldier Mama" says it all. A pounding, distorted guitar ushers in "Don't Change," and shadows the frustration of the vocalist as he decries the injustice of a push and pull world where what is often most needed is the exact opposite of what is on display.
"I Still Belong to Jesus," by singer-songwriter Peter Case, is given a 70s country-soul feel by Burnett and sounds like Bill Withers or Dobie Gray in their prime, except that it was written recently. Everything about this tune whispers classic. It is simple, sincere, and profound, and sounds like a testimony, proclamation, and confession all-in-one. It is, without exception, the most moving song I've encountered this year, and demands to be heard.
The album comes to a close with "Salvation," an apt benediction full of hope and promise, made all the more meaningful by the finesse and feeling on display. Robert Randolph and the Family Band commence their second decade on a high note, and, if this is a sign of things to come, then it will be a rich one indeed.
Gary D. Kersey
A few years ago I read an interview with the legendary producer and archivist T-Bone Burnett, where he talked of using ambient sounds that only get heard subliminally, but which give a track its warmth and tone. So, as someone who has enjoyed Randolph’s previous releases, but found Colorblind a little too dense, I was very excited to hear that Burnett would be producing this release. Listen carefully and all over the place you can hear patches of sound sewn into the fabric of the songs, while the overall feel still comes across as fresh and well-ventilated.
Burnett is also the man who chooses the songs for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and for artists like Robert Plant in his new Americana phase. Over two years, he was able to guide Randolph through his own musical history. In the CD notes, Randolph writes. “T Bone brought in old archival songs from the twenties and thirties... he knows how to take something from the past and bring it into the present, while still allowing the artists to make it his own.” That is just what he has done here.
A good example is “If I Had My Way,” which features Ben Harper playing slide and interplaying smartly with the pedal steel. It is credited to Randolph, Burnett, Tonio K and the late Blind Willie Johnson, whose song inspired it, and interludes from which bookend the track. Similarly, snatches of the Mitchell’s Christian Singers doing the traditional “Them Bones” segue in and out of the new track “Dry Bones,” a cheeky, jaunty, swaying piece that brings it up to date, while echoing the classic sound on the chorus.
While Randolph looks right back, there is an immediacy about tracks from within his lifetime. Will Gray’s “Back to the Wall” has a definite Prince feel, while Prince’s own “Walk, Don’t Walk” has a pop-funk strut that brings to mind Little Feat in places, and John Lennon’s guitar-rich “I Don’t Wanna be a Soldier Mama” gets a hypnotic, swampy, Sly and the Family Stone groove.
There’s a roundedness about the personnel in places. Burnett was part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and they re-work Dylan’s “Shot of Love” here, with drummer Jim Keltner performing again – he played on the original album. While Keltner is a top pro’s choice, he doesn’t always stand out, but on this disc, his percussion is distinctive force. Like an athlete’s spinal cord, regular and flexible, it holds everything together as the tracks run their course.
Randolph claims that he wants to make people feel good without preaching. But who needs to preach when songs include Peter Case’s impassioned “I Still Belong to Jesus,” which gets to the heart of the gospel; the uncompromising “Walk, Don’t Walk;” the mellow final track “Salvation” and particularly the spiritually urgent and lyrically potent “Shot of Love”?
Anyone who likes to don the
headphones and study an album should love this, not just because of those
ambient bits, but because each track has something different about the
production, while still feeling very much a part of the whole. So gospel,
funk, hip-hip, rock, soul, pop and ‘sacred steel’ all get fused into one
glorious and unique whole. People-pleasing without compromising, this is
a beautifully-crafted, must-investigate release.