Robert Randolph & the Family Band
(Mascot Label Group)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
When does a pedal steel guitar not sound like a pedal steel guitar? When Robert Randolph wraps his hands around the fret board, raising it above his head as he sparks a pulsating, sliding howl that sounds like Duane Allman on steroids.
Randolph may not have been the first pedal steel practitioner to bring the buzzing wail of his instrument to the gospel genre but he is surely the most famous. He’s been testifying to rock, blues, religious and jam audiences since around 2000, delivering rousing, sweat-soaked shows that may not turn sinners into saints but leaves audiences wowed by his longtime band’s sheer energy, passion and intensity.
Other than bringing in veteran producer Dave Cobb for studio release number six, little has changed in Randolph’s approach on Brighter Days. There’s a smattering of rousing, near frantic, dance-inducing music (with a message) exemplified by tunes such as “Don’t Fight It” and the Stevie Ray Vaughan-styled five minute closer “Strange Train.” The latter ends with an explosion of notes that are both brutally intense and transcendentally uplifting.
But Cobb mixes up the approach, shifting Randolph to the slow, swampy Staple Singers’ “Simple Man” and the hard New Orleans funk of “Second Hand Man.” The opening “Baptize Me” rides a tough, blues rocking groove that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kenny Wayne Shepherd disc as Randolph lets loose with a roaring, sizzling solo that blasts out of the speakers.
Letting sister Lenesha Randolph handle lead vocals on the sweet, soulful “Cry Over Me,” compete with a particularly honeyed pedal steel break, also alters the vibe. And the disc’s other cover of “I’m Living Off the Love You Give,” a minor hit for Little Milton, takes the title lyric and applies it in a more spiritual sense as Randolph grinds out a tough, funky Stax groove topped by a typically ferocious solo. Cobb is credited as co-writer with Randolph and others on half these 10 tracks, and guitarist on all of them, so his input is felt to an even greater degree than for some of his many other productions. The set’s lone misstep however is the schlocky ballad “I Need You.” It’s a showcase for Randolph’s soulful vocals that may be well meaning but are sunk by a glossy MOR arrangement and simplistic chorus of “I need you like a flower needs the rain.” Not exactly Dylan-level poetry there.
Regardless, this is another in a series of solid, R&B-soaked Sacred Steel albums, each a little better and more focused than the last, that further cements the pedal steel’s — and Robert Randolph’s own — musical place both in and outside of the church.