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Robert Randolph: A Gospel Guitarist's Secular 'Road'

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Robert Randolph: A Gospel Guitarist's Secular 'Road'

Robert Randolph: A Gospel Guitarist's Secular 'Road'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Robert Randolph and the Family Band have been recording for about a decade, mixing soul, gospel, R&B and rock. Randolph emerged from a gospel music tradition, playing steel guitar in the so-called sacred steel style of certain African-American Pentecostal churches. His move into secular music has now been furthered by a new album, "We Walk This Road," produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring both original songs and songs of covers from Bob Dylan, Prince and John Lennon.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT RANDOLPH (Guitarist, Singer): (Singing) We walk this road. We're on our way. But when we get there, no one can say. No one can say. No one can say.

KEN TUCKER: The high, plaintive wail of the pedal steel guitar and the warmly rough voice that follows close behind it define Robert Randolph's sound. In the past, and occasionally on this new album "We Walk This Road," Randolph's mixture of soul, gospel, R&B and rock is reminiscent of another group that came out of a similar tradition: Sly and the Family Stone.

At once a seasoned gospel prodigy and a newcomer to secular music, it's no surprise that Randolph has ended up working with producer T-Bone Burnett, the musical polymath who likes to pair musicians with songs that might not otherwise occur to the artists. So it is with Randolph's cover of the Peter Case song "I Still Belong to Jesus." It begins with an intro that sounds like something off a 1970s Fleetwood Mac album, and then moves into Randolph's searching soulfulness.

(Soundbite of song "I Still Belong to Jesus")

Mr. RANDOLPH: (Singing) Someone else woke up today and saw it all in a brand new way. But I still have to turn my head. I still belong. Something saved me long ago. How it happened, I don't know. You say it doesn't make much sense. Still, I know it's no coincidence. My life has changed.

TUCKER: Randolph and Burnett listened to loads of music, from the turn of the century to the present. Like doctoral students footnoting their scholarship, the album includes snippets of some of the original texts from which they derived inspiration. Listen to the way this bit of "If I Had My Way" from Blind Willie Johnson leads to a glorious rearrangement of the song by Randolph, Burnett and the great eccentric Los Angeles singer-songwriter Tonio K.

(Soundbite of song "If I Had My Way")

Mr. BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: (Singing) Well. Delilah was a woman fine and fair. Her pleasant looks, her coal black hair. Delilah gained old Samson's mind. At first saw the woman that looked so fine. A-well went Timnathy, I can't tell. A daughter of Timnathy, a pleased him well. Samson told his father, I'm going. Help me Lord. If I had my way...

Mr. RANDOLPH: (Singing) I'd tear the building down. If I had my way, I'd tear the building down. Tear the building down. Tear the building down.

Daniel, Daniel in the lion's den, wondering where have you been. Like Delilah fine and fair, diamond eyes and coal black hair. Like Delilah put me out, too much sorrow, so much doubt. Love is painful. Love is blind. Never know what you're going to find. If I had my way...

TUCKER: Backing Robert Randolph and the Family Band on that track is drummer Jim Keltner, who's played on so many crucial albums by everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan. Speaking of Dylan, his song "Shot of Love" receives a radical reworking on this album, and not for the better. The title song from what is generally considered the last of Dylan's born-again Christian period, "Shot of Love" featured Keltner on the original.

There's another connection here, too: It's was widely reported that T-Bone Burnett was one of the people who escorted Dylan into evangelical Christianity in the late '70s - all the more reason, therefore, to be startled at how miscalculated Randolph's version of the song sounds. I'd call it a travesty if the original material merited such a shocked term.

(Soundbite of song "Shot of Love")

Mr. RANDOLPH: (Singing) Don't need no shot of heroin to kill my disease. Don't need no shot of turpentine, only bring me to my knees. Don't need no shot of codeine to help me to repent. Don't need no shot of whiskey, help me be president. I need a shot of love.

TUCKER: And so this album "We Walk This Road" is certainly uneven, but always interestingly so. The urgency in Randolph's singing propels every song forward, even when everyone's headed either on a wild detour or in the wrong direction. But he also keeps both the high road and the mainstream in sight. Randolph knows that what his gospel past and his pop music future have in common is a desire to communicate to the widest possible audience, to have you feel and share in his passion for every kind of music that embodies his hopes, his desires and his dreams.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "We Walk This Road" from Robert Randolph and the Family Band. You can hear three songs from the album on our website:

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