Robert Randolph is considered one of the great pedal steel guitarists playing today.
But if you see him play live, don’t expect to hear any Buck Owens tunes or the crowd to yell “yee-haw.” It’s more likely you’ll see the crowd shaking their groove things to Randolph’s version of “Love Rollercoaster” or some other funky treat.
For Randolph didn’t learn the pedal steel guitar by playing in a country band the way so many pedal steel players do. He came from a lesser-known tradition where pedal steel is a key instrument in Christian churches with especially lively choirs. In those churches, such as the Pentecostal one where Randolph’s mother is a minister, pedal steel is known as “sacred steel.”
“If you’ve seen ‘The Blues Brothers’ movie, that’s the kind of church where I started playing,” said Randolph, 33. “It’s just uplifting music that makes you dance. Everybody at my church was dancing.”
And if Randolph has his way, everybody will be dancing Saturday night when Robert Randolph & The Family Band plays at Asylum in Portland.
Randolph and his band are touring this fall after releasing their first studio album in three years, “Lickety Split,” in July. The album features the soulful originals Randolph became known for on his previous five albums, plus covers of The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’ ” and the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster.”
The album features guest appearances by Carlos Santana and Trombone Shorty, and was engineered by Eddie Kramer, a veteran engineer who has worked with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
Randolph’s prowess on an unusual instrument and his band’s intense live shows have earned the attention of critics and media around the country. National Public Radio profiled Randolph and his band when “Lickety Split” came out, and Rolling Stone critic David Fricke lists Randolph at No. 97 on his list of the 100 greatest guitar players of all time.
Randolph says taking time to record “Lickety Split” was a welcome change of pace that allowed him time to “create and re-tool” after years of touring. He’s been on and off the road since around 2001.
“Eddie Kramer told us that going back into the studio after so many live shows is like putting gas into the car — that’s what gives you the energy to run,” said Randolph.
So now with a full tank of gas in his pedal steel guitar — which is played on a little table, like a keyboard — Randolph is up for some intense touring again.
He said his band’s live shows continue to feature all the things that helped gain their reputation: Band members trading instruments; audience members being asked to sing, dance or even play an instrument on stage.
And then there are times when Randolph leaves his instrument, lets the band play and just dances to his heart’s content.
“That comes from my church upbringing — everybody danced at my church,” said Randolph, who grew up in Orange, N.J.
Randolph was “discovered” by recording executives after appearing at a church “sacred steel” convention. Lots of music industry folks and country pedal steel players go to these conventions to see what the church pedal steel players are up to, Randolph said.
He and his band have toured with all manner of musicians, including guitar legend Eric Clapton. Randolph said Clapton told him that looking back at his early days in music, he never could have imagined he would end up where he has.
And Randolph, who started playing in church and now does funk and soul music while earning praise from Rolling Stone critics, thinks the same thing.
“If you had told me a few years back I’d be touring with Eric Clapton,” he said, “I would have never believed it.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: