Robert Randolph — rock ‘n’ roll’s positive energy ambassador
By Jay Gentile For Sun-Times Media May 8, 2014 4:22PM
Robert Randolph and the Family Band bring their "sacred steel" church music meets rock 'n roll to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band, 8 p.m. May 9 North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie $36-$62, (847) 673-6300; Northshorecenter.org
You better be having fun at a Robert Randolph concert. Because if you aren’t, he’ll stop the show until you are.
“I really don’t have a set list,” said the pedal steel guitar virtuoso and leader of the positive energy-fueled soul-rocking juggernaut known as Robert Randolph and the Family Band, performing at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on May 9. “We just kind of go by the vibe, what’s going on.”
Randolph said he honed this technique growing up in the House of God church, where he was known to uncork rapturous pedal steel guitar performances during services in inner-city New Jersey. That is, until he first heard a cassette of Stevie Ray Vaughan covering “Voodoo Child.” And, in an instant, everything changed.
“I listened to that tape every day for about five to six years straight,” Randolph said, crediting Vaughan as the inspiration behind The Family Band’s high-octane, booty-shaking marriage of “sacred steel” church music with hard-charging rock and roll energy.
That musical energy is what transformed Robert Randolph from a troubled inner-city kid dealing drugs and dodging bullets into one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists of All Time” — who has now worked with a Who’s Who of legendary artists from Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr to Buddy Guy and Carlos Santana.
Randolph burst out of the church pew and descended onto the music scene in 2003 with the release of the Warner Brothers-backed “Unclassified” and rode a wave of success for the better part of the decade, fueled in large part by the relentless enthusiasm and testimonial fury of their live sets.
Simply put, their music pumps people up. So much so that the New York Knicks have enlisted the aid of Randolph and company to perform before every Friday night home game to “give the fans some hope and excitement.”
But somewhere along the way in recent years, Randolph got caught up in the never-ending pace of the music business and lost his inspiration. The band’s new album “Lickety Split” is about rediscovering that positive energy and passion, a passion that was on full display at a recent concert in Denver — where Randolph invited a street performer he had discovered that day playing guitar outside of a Jamba Juice to jam on stage with the band for three songs.
“I’m not sure what triggered it, but I just said, ‘Hey, we’re playing not too far from here. If you know the venue, I want you to sit in with us,’ ” recalled Randolph of the experience. “It was a really cool, really great moment. The crowd dug it.”
Randolph is now taking those positive vibes off the stage to help build the Robert Randolph Renaissance Center in Newark, a “full-on educational Renaissance facility” that will offer music and arts education in addition to technical skills training to inner-city youth starting next fall.
“I was one of those kids and I would be one of those kids probably in jail had I not, you know, had family, mentorship, uncles, the church,” he said. “My deal is we all, as a community, need to step up for the kids.”
Randolph, now the father of a 5-year-old daughter living in the more upscale town of Livingston, New Jersey, said there are all kinds of after-school opportunities for the youth of his town. But when he visits the neighborhood of his adolescence, there’s nothing. Nada. Zero.
“The kids are bored. They don’t have anything to do,” he said. “They’re just telling the kids to go to school and when they get out, that’s it. That’s really the problem,” he said.
Randolph recently visited a school in New Jersey, where he offered 20 students the chance to interview him. He was blown away by “the excitement you see on these kids’ faces” when presented with an opportunity they otherwise never would have had.
Which, like everything when it comes to the world of Robert Randolph, brings us back to the “universal unifier” that is music. “It just gives kids different opportunities to explore life,” Randolph said. “When you see those kinds of responses, that’s what inspires me.”