Guitar leads, success follows 

Robert Randolph chases his pedal steel to the spotlight

click to enlarge You only wish you could wear a hat like Robert Randolph - (second from left, though that should go without saying).
  • You only wish you could wear a hat like Robert Randolph (second from left, though that should go without saying).

Considering the praise that came his way after his debut CD, Unclassified, the Sept. 26 release of Colorblind could be one of the major music events of 2006 if Robert Randolph's self-assessment is on target.

"We've written way better songs for this one," he says. "Not to look down on Unclassified, but it's just like [we've] grown up."

A virtuoso on pedal steel guitar, Randolph earned comparisons to such prestigiously talented guitarists as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with Unclassified. Like those musicians, Randolph has changed the way pedal steel guitar is seen, transforming the winsome twang many associate with the instrument into a super-charged sound.

On Unclassified, as well as his 2002 debut EP, Live at the Wetlands, Randolph and The Family Band (members include cousins Danyel Morgan, on bass, and Marcus Randolph, on drums) unleashed a collection of lively tunes that blended rock, gospel, soul and blues. The songs were topped off by Randolph's stunning pedal steel leads, in which a fleet-fingered style might give way to a stinging or moaning sustained single note, at a moment's notice.

Randolph first came to the instrument through the House of God Church in Orange, N.J., where it was used in place of the organ. His big break came after he appeared on a "sacred steel" compilation released in 1999 on Arhoolie Records, when he was invited to open a New York show for the North Mississippi Allstars. That gig led to an invite to join the Allstars and keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) in a side project called The Word.

That CD and the tour that followed earned Randolph considerable notice, and in 2002, he released Live at the Wetlands, on Sci-Fi. Wetlands was re-released on Warner Bros. after Randolph signed with the label. Unclassified followed in 2003.

In touring behind Unclassified, Randolph got to share stages with the likes of Eric Clapton, the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and the Allman Brothers Band, to name a few.

The circle of musicians who have been impressed by Randolph's music and playing carried over, to a point, to Colorblind. Although Randolph resisted making it an all-star affair, both Clapton and Matthews play and sing on tracks.

Clapton is featured on a cover of the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is just Alright."

"We nailed that one then, and we were just, like, going off at each other on guitars," Randolph says. "That's a whole other deal there."

Matthews appears on a track called "Love is the Only Way," which he co-wrote with Randolph.

Even though outside musicians and several producers had a hand in creating the new music, Randolph says he retained the basic stylistic blueprint of Unclassified. This means Colorblind should deliver another set of high-energy songs that bridge the gaps between rock, gospel, soul and blues.

"You'll feel this [same] constant barrage of joyous music and energy," Randolph says.


Robert Randolph & The Family Band, with Drive-By Truckers and The Black Crowes

Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison

Saturday, Aug. 12, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $42.50-$49.50; call 520-9090 or visit ticketmaster.com.


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