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Sacred Steel Worker

Robert Randolph puts his mettle to the pedal

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Over the course of one dizzying year, Robert Randolph has gone from playing exclusively in churches for small congregations to opening for the Dave Matthews Band in front of 15,000 people at Madison Square Garden. And the 24-year-old product of northern New Jersey has taken this rocket ride by playing the decidedly unglamorous pedal steel guitar. "I'm at a loss for words everyday," he says. "It's insane, man." The pedal steel guitar is most often associated with weepy country tunes, but Randolph's style is antithetical to the sad/lonesome pinings that emanate from Nashville pickers. He attacks his steel like a flashy demon, spewing out lightning licks and hair-raising sound smears. In all, his playing has more in common with that of the late Duane Allman, albeit with a rounder, more mellifluous tone.

Randolph is speaking by cell phone from his car, trying to locate a parking spot in Manhattan for that night's gig with former Allman Brother and Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes. Until his ascendance in the secular world, Randolph knew little or nothing of these acts -- or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye or Jimi Hendrix or other legendary rock and R&B artists. As a kid, he regularly attended the Church of God, a Southern-based Pentecostal ministry, in Orange, NJ. But he was also a denizen of hardscrabble streets around Newark, where his musical diet consisted of Tupac and Biggie and other rappers.

Randolph started playing pedal steel at 17 and became committed to it after the death of a friend. Five-hour practice sessions in a cramped bedroom ensued. You'd think that in an urban region where budding musicians are more apt to adopt two turntables and a microphone, that a gospel pedal steel player would become something of an outcast. Not so, insists Randolph.

"I was always a group leader, had friends who followed me," he says. "We'd be playing video games stuck in the house, and every time somebody got scored on I'd go to my guitar and start playing something. They'd be sayin', "Oh, man, that's hot, yo!'"

Since the early 30s, the House of God has used the pedal steel in lieu of an organ, punctuating the preacher's remarks and leading the congregation in celebratory songs. This tradition, known as "Sacred Steel," first came to secular attention about five years ago when the folk label Arhoolie began releasing compilations of the style. Randolph was one of the featured artists. Soon enough, important ears perked up. Randolph took on a New York manager, who booked some dates at Manhattan clubs like The Wetlands and Mercury Lounge, where Randolph and his Family Band -- cousins Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph on bass and drums, John Ginty on organ -- became a roof-raising sensation.

The neo-blues band North Mississippi All-Stars snagged the group as an opening act; then jam-funksters Medeski Martin and Wood heard the call. Randolph joined All-Stars Luther and Cody Dickinson and keyboardist John Medeski in an instrumental gospel project call The Word. Just like that, the word on Randolph was out.

He and the Family Band are currently on a headlining tour supporting their debut disc, Live at the Wetlands, on the New Jersey-based Dare Records. Randolph and company do not perform a proper gospel show, but their performances carry the fevered intensity and unbridled joy of a tent revival. The quartet relies heavily on the manic rhythms of black Southern church music. "Ted's Jam," the opening track on Live at the Wetlands, races along for more than 13 minutes, surging into one goosebump-raising crescendo after another. Randolph cajoles daggers of sound from his ax, the rhythm section barreling along in lockstep. Although there's an undercurrent of spirituality in the performance, Randolph explores earthly pleasures as well. "Shake Your Hips" would certainly draw frowns from church elders. It begins with a signature John Lee Hooker boogie lick, then releases into a gospel rave-up.

Randolph doesn't view his secular performances as a ministry, but rather strikes a balance between the spiritual and earthy. "Church is a holy setting; there's none of the drinking or smoking," he explains. "People come to church to find peace of mind, to release negative things that happened during the week. We do a musical healing. When we play in a club, we try to create that same type of feel -- play music and songs to get minds off of negative things to get people jumpin' and dancin' and screamin' and shoutin.' You don't come to one of my shows to sit back and watch me play. We're puttin' on a service here."

Robert Randolph and the Family Band will perform Thursday, July 25, at the Visulite. Call 358-9200 for more info.

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