By Mike Finkelstein
Last weekend at Royce Hall, CAP UCLA presented another intriguing show, as Robert Randolph and the Slide Brothers delivered a unique clinic on how to make a musical point with a steel guitar. I’m not sure how many of us knew that the Slide Brothers use four or five non-identical steel guitars to build a marvelously layered sound. But to watch as the four stations were set up across the stage you could feel the anticipation build. What would this sound like? And, how cool to get four of these contraptions firing at once in any room, be it a church or Royce Hall. Bring it on!
The development of the Slide Brothers began in several Pentecostal churches back in the 1930’s. In this Sacred Steel Style an amplified steel guitar, played sitting and tabled with a knife or a metal slide, is used to drive the melodic turns of a piece of music like a banshee. It is a lightning bolt of sound that cuts through just about anything.
As a child, Robert Randolph was born into the House of God church in Orange, New Jersey and became fascinated with the Sacred Steel he heard in services. He followed the pull of the steel guitar to become a monster player himself. His heroes included pioneers of the style: Aubrey Ghent, Henry Nelson, and Chuck and Darick Campbell. The Slide Brothers lineup is basically Randolph playing onstage with several of the people from whom he learned the most about the style.
While the Sacred Steel music was confined under church roofs, Randolph didn’t listen to much else as a teen. In the last ten years or so, he has become increasingly aware of and connected with secular blues music like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, and Jimi Hendrix. Randolph has brought the Sacred Steel out of the church, fitted it to some popular secular styles, and teamed up with his mentors to let the glory of the instrument speak for itself.
When the Slide Brothers came on we had the legendary Chuck Campbell and Randolph on pedal steel guitars, at opposite ends of the stage. This, alone, represented 25 strings worth of harmonic possibilities. In the middle were Aubrey Ghent and Calvin Cooke, and on the backline we had the booming rhythm section of Ray Holloman on bass and big Carlton Campbell (Chuck’s nephew) on drums.
The music was tremendous, with the pulsating beat you would expect from Gospel music and the nuanced tones you would want from blues and even rock music. The Slide Brothers have just released a new album, Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers, which features several familiar secular songs including, “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, and the Tampa Red standard, “It Hurts Me Too.” Songs like “The Sky Is Crying,” made popular by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” put a galvanizing perspective on the sound of this style. Hearing a familiar song done in a new style usually reveals a bit about the song and the players, too. This was surely the case on Saturday. On “Voodoo Child,” nobody sang the dark set of lyrics to the song. But, they put the pedal to the metal instrumentally.
The sound was louder than usual for Royce and steel guitars do very well with a little extra lift. Time after time, the Slide Brothers would pull the elements that make an electric steel guitar sound as big as a herd of elephants. It was the nuances that made you take notice. Slurred power chords and especially the sweet spot in the decay of a note feeding back. The percussive chunk-a-chunk that pervades great rhythm guitar playing was also there, as was the wailing, writhing high notes. Beyond that, organ voicings were also easy for the guys to reach on the pedal steels. So, there were many options for which register they might choose — below the melody lines. In the tradition of big amplified sound, the steels were sent through delay and distortion effects, and even wah-wah pedals.
Robert Randolph can flat out fly on a steel guitar. He peeled off several stunning pentatonic runs that evoked and perhaps eclipsed a standard electric guitar. Impressive, as there are no frets on a pedal steel guitar. But then he would delve into the steel’s harmonic voicings for striking contrast. His foil on stage right was Chuck Campbell, a big presence on a bench behind his steel. His style leaned more towards composed, swirling chordal movement. Together they covered some wide and serious tonal ground, while balancing each other’s sound.
To be sure, most of us had never seen anything like this and probably won’t until we go see them live again. Not a lot of people do what Randolph and the Slide Brothers are doing. It should be delightful to see where they turn for material in the future and how they arrange it when they get there.
Otis Taylor and his band from Boulder opened the show with an impressive set of songs that were rooted in blues but branched out in funkier directions to come across as some intriguing rock music. Taylor’s band featured the animated performance of Anne Harris on violin and the very hot licks of Shawn Starski on lead guitar. Taylor himself had a warm way about him and the set’s energy got the audience primed for the treat awaiting them with the Slide Brothers.
To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.