Robert Randolph at Blues Fest

The lyrics “we’re gonna have a good time” and “put your hands up” aptly describe the upbeat atmosphere when Robert Randolph and the Family Band appeared at the 26th Annual Waterfront Blues Festival on Sunday.

A master of Sacred Steel

The lively, up-tempo numbers, fast drumbeats and wailing guitar kept the crowd rocking. Randolph worked his magic on the pedal steel guitar, an instrument he took to at the House of God Church. Considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to play, it is referred to as Sacred Steel in African American Pentecostal churches.

Though Randolph has successfully crossed it over to secular audiences, he asserts that lap steel has been played in church since the 1920’s. In fact he evoked a gospel vibe when he instructed the audience to “Touch someone and say ‘I feel love’. Touch someone and say ‘I feel free.'” It wasn’t a religious tone but a spiritual one, appropriate for the peace-loving crowd where the olfactory senses picked up on the wafting smell of hemp now and then.

Randolph is a virtuoso on the pedal steel guitar. He earned a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, at #97. He so impressed guitar nobility like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana that he has collaborated with them on stage and in the studio. I even caught a glimpse of Robert Plant walking from the backstage area to the side of the stage to watch the Family Band. Randolph later alluded to Plant as his “good friend.”

“The March” was an entertaining experience, sounding like an Allman Brothers jam with a country blues beat. Randolph got up from his chair and danced about, encouraging fans to mimic his easy-to-follow choreography.

The Family Band mixes it up with funk, soul, blues and rock. They keep the energy flowing with instrumentals and soulful vocals. The group’s personnel includes three of Randolph’s relatives, hence the name. Imagine holidays at the Randolph home with all that talent in the clan.

The band’s new CD, Lickety Split, is due July 16. Blue Note Records President Don Was says the album captures the energy and excitement of his legendary live performances.

Robert Randolph Music & Arts Program

Perhaps his worshipful roots compel Randolph to give back and reach out to those less privileged. According to the band’s website, Randolph considers himself to be an ambassador for inner-city kids. He is remodeling an old abandoned school in his hometown of Irvington, New Jersey and opening the Robert Randolph Music & Arts Program.

There hasn’t been any arts in the school, period, since I was in high school. So my whole motivation changed to a full-on effort to get these kids into music, and also find out what other passions they have and try to offer that. These kids don’t have anything to do, they don’t have any hope. — Robert Randolph

Inspirational role models like Randolph do bring hope.

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