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Issue 1089

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Review

Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers (Concord Records)

The Slide Brothers CD Cover Pic

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UK release date 01.04.2013

You may have heard of Robert Randolph but chances are, unless you live in the USA and are up with the gospel and sacred steel tradition, you will not know The Slide Brothers. This is their debut studio album, but they are not exactly overnight sensations with the four guys having been playing in church for many decades.

Robert Randolph set the the music world on fire in 2000 when he began playing his first club dates in New York City before audiences who had, for the most part, never before had any intersection with the sacred steel phenomenon. Randolph started playing the instrument as a church-going teenager in Orange, New Jersey. He was raised in the House of God Church, an African-American Pentecostal denomination that had been implementing steel guitars in services since the â30s.

Randolphâs own group, the Family Band, includes cousins Danyel Morgan, Marcus Randolph and John Ginty. Robert Randolph and the Family Bandâs Live at the Wetlands, released in 2001, vividly captured the bandâs live performance and set the stage for Unclassified, the studio debut that followed in 2003, introducing Randolph to an even wider audience. One new fan was veteran guitarist Eric Clapton, who brought the band out on tour and appeared on Robert Randolphâs third release, Colorblind, in 2006.

In 2010, Randolph teamed-up with producer T-Bone Burnett and released the album We Walk This Road, which featured guest appearances from Ben Harper, Leon Russell and Doyle Bramhall II. More recently, he unveiled Robert Randolph and the Family Bandâs Live in Concert, a long-awaited follow-up for the fans of his acclaimed Live in the Wetlands recording. Today, Robert Randolph finds himself back in the studio and returning to his roots. âBy co-producing and presenting the new album from The Slide Brothers, Iâm hoping that the story can finally be told,â he explains. âFor eighty years this music has been hidden inside the churches and these older guys were not allowed to play anything else. Now weâre all hanging out with The Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy and B.B. King and can use gospel and mainstream music to tell our story.â

I missed Robert Randolph playing in Nashville just down the road from my hotel when I was there around 2006, but the year before last I shot exclusive pix of him in soundcheck and during his set as support to The Tedeschi Trucks Band, and it was without doubt one of the very best gigs of my life and the best gig of 2011 by far. But Robertâs command of the pedal steel is breath taking. Imagine Jimi Hendrix crossed with Albert Lee and Paul Franklin. An amazing sound. Well, RR not only puts his name to this album and co-produced it (with John McDermott,) but he also plays on it too with his own band. Yaaaay........

The material stretches the players outside their usual non secular comfort zone, and it works well. Some of the vocals â shared around the steel players and others â sometimes did not match the levels of the playing, but warts and all it is still an absolute delight and will thrill fans of Robertâs and those of us who love gospel and discovering great ânewâ talent. The Slide Brothers, are hailed as the standard bearers of the sacred steel tradition. Robert Randolph has revitalized the sacred steel tradition in the modern era, carrying the style born in The House of God Church more than 80 years ago to mainstream secular success before concert and festival audiences around the world. The 11 tracks some of the most dynamic electric slide guitar playing ever recorded. Inspired by Randolph to finally emerge beyond their respected positions within the sacred steel community, the Slide Brothers tackle rock, funk and even the deepest blues with a ferocity that will startle fans of Duane Allman, Derek Trucks and even Muddy Waters.

The Slide Brothers are Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent, each of whom was raised worshiping and performing in The Church of the Living God. They were an ad hoc family, traveling and learning from the other dominions in their communities in cities from Nashville to Chicago to Newark. Calvin Cooke was born into a musical family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1944 and would go on to become known among the ranks of Nashvilleâs premier country steel guitarists as âthe B.B. King of gospel steel guitar.â Cooke is hailed today as the most influential living pedal steel guitar master within the Sacred Steel tradition. The album opens with a searing interpretation of the Allman Bros classic âDonât Keep Me Wonderinââ. The twin guitar attack by Chuck and Darick Campbell immediately serves notice to the remarkable musicianship honed by years of playing in church and at sacred steel conventions. âGrowing up in church, traditional blues music always came off to us as a little bit sloppy,â explains Chuck Campbell. âIt was not as precise as Sacred Steel where it is always about mimicking the voices heard in the church. We wanted to play these songs with the same conviction we have in churchâplaying the steel so that you can almost hear the words as if they were sung by a voice.â

Two songs from the album celebrate the music of Elmore James, the Chicago blues legend who made his mark as a master of the slide guitar technique that would later influence greats like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and, of course Robert Randolph. Randolph also counts The Slide Brothers as a major influence and an inspiration. âI was born with these guys,â explains Randolph. âI look to them the same way I look to blues greats like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Aubrey Ghent and Henry Nelson, Aubreyâs dad, and The Campbell Brothers; they all shaped this Sacred Steel tradition inside the churches but they werenât allowed to leave the church until now.â Likewise, Aubrey Ghent has also become a celebrated steel guitarist, preserving the sacred steel tradition and bringing it to a wider audience. Ghentâs unique skills became apparent at a very early age and local churches began inviting him to perform at services starting when he was only nine years old. At twenty he answered Godâs call and became known as the âPreaching Deacon,â evangelizing through both word and music. Unlike Robert Randolph and the Family Band who have crossed over by doing more secular music, Ghent has stayed closer to the gospel roots of the tradition.

Chuck Campbell began playing the lap steel guitar at the age of twelve and is renowned for his innovative approach to the instrument, both technically and musically. His brother Darick Campbell first made his mark in music as a drummer, and he was the premier drummer of the General Assembly, the National Convocation of the House Of God Church in Nashville, Tennessee. His choice of the Lap Steel is a direct reflection of the influences that he has blended in becoming the most emotional player of The Campbell Brothers musical tour de force. The Slide Brothers shift easily between genres, incorporating both traditional gospel repertoire as well as and secular material. To underscore the albumâs diversity, a stirring instrumental version of the spiritual classic âWade in the Water,â (I love the version by Ramsey Lewis) is followed by a vibrant and bluesy cover of Fatboy Slimâs 1999 trip hop hit âPraise Youâ (featuring vocals by blues queen Shemekia Copeland who does a fine job as she usually does, and backing by Robert Randolph & the Family Band). Jimmy Carter of the famed Blind Boys Of Alabama joins Aubrey Ghent to provide lead vocals for George Harrisonâs iconic âMy Sweet Lord.â

âIt has long been a vision of all of ours to be able to this,â says Chuck Campbell. âRobert was able to pull together the top steel players from different generations. It is truly an honor to be a part of album that brings together so many wonderful people such as Jimi Hendrix bassist Billy Cox, Shemekia Copeland, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama. Instead of us meeting at a church convention we were able to get everyone together in a recording studios to play secular songs and religious songs with the same conviction. We feel blessed that we have finally been able to do this.â

The album features the track all the younger blues guitarists associate with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, his famed album title âThe Sky Is Crying," released a year after his tragic death in a helicopter crash. But the song was written and first performed by the legendary Elmore James. Nice job here and I note Chris Layton of SRVâs band Double Trouble plays drums on it, joined by Billy Cox who played bass with Hendrix. Claptonâs 1974 album â461 Ocean Boulevard,â which I bought when it came out, featured the outstanding track âMotherless Childrenâ - a traditional song - which opened side one. It crops up here too, again a very nice job as is the entire collection.
Words SIMON REDLEY

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