(Kuumbwa Jazz presents Robert Randolph and the Slide Brothers who will debut their new album this coming Wednesday, February 20th at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. The above podcast is features cuts from the album and a phone interview with Slide Brother, Chuck Campell.
First a little background history: In the early 1930’s brothers Troman and Willie Easton showed the congregations of that African-American Church of the Living God that lap steel guitar played in a certain style could “sing” gospel just like a choir of angels in lieu of the traditional church organ. Lap steel instantly became part of church services and dubbed “sacred steel”. After the death of its founder, the church split into three dominions with the Keith Dominion in Nashville and the Jewell Dominion of Indianapolis incorporating the sacred steel style into their worship in some 22 states.
Sacred Steel Virtuosos
Many of these slide players became virtuosos. Their bands were often made up of family members and relatives who made careers playing sacred steel at their local churches and events unheard by those outside the congregation. That all changed about 14 years ago when a young sacred pedal steel player, Robert Randolph and his Family Band decided to branch out from church and show the world what they’ve been missing. As a teenager Randolph was unaware of any non-religious music but later he discovered and was influenced by modern rock guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix and bluesmen like Muddy Waters. Randolph made his breakthrough when he was discovered while performing at a Sacred Steel Convention in Florida.
The steel player’s career received a huge boost thanks to Eric Clapton who asked Randolph and the Family to open for him on his 2003 tour. Randolph is now considered one of the world’s guitar greats. Over the years this steel pedal guitarist brought along many of the top sacred steel players on his tours including the Campbell Brothers who joined a few years ago joined Randolph as part of the Experience Hendrix 2011 tour.
Randolph backs the Slide Brothers
This time around, Robert Randolph has gathered four steel masters who have spent their lives playing in the African-American church to showcase their amazing dexterity at trading their slide leads back and forth between each other, performing the gospel and blues that makes the tradition of sacred steel so uniqueness in addition to putting new spins on well known contemporary classics. These four are currently touring in support of their brand new debut recording, “Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers”.
The four veteran Slide Brothers are 69 year old Calvin Cooke – nicknamed “the BB King of gospel steel guitar”, gospel lap steel preacher, Aubrey Ghent and two of the Campbell Brothers, Chuck and Darick. All four steel players have spent most of their lives playing in the Church of the Living God where sacred steel has been a 75 years plus tradition.
Legendary Hendrix Recording Engineer Mixes Album
One of the big surprises is that longtime Jimi Hendrix studio producer, Eddie Kramer, recorded and mixed The Slide Brothers new album. Hendrix biographer, John McDermott of Experience Hendrix, authored the liner notes.
Maybe this isn’t so surprising after all because Randolph has long included several blazing interpretations from the Hendrix canon like “Purple Haze” and “Manic Depression” as part of his repertoire.
Surprisingly there are no Hendrix covers on this new Slide Brothers album. The musicians including Randolph vary from track to track with none featuring all four Slide Brothers playing all together for some reason.
This really doesn’t matter as all the songs on this album powerfully stand on their own regardless of who’s playing what. The Slide Brothers kick off with Greg Allmans’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”with Cooke on vocals with the Campbell Brothers band trading wild leads back and forth and sounding an awful lot like the Derek Trucks Band. Other tracks include a fine rendition of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” with spoken word by Audrey Grant and the instrumental classic “Wade In the Water” performed by the Campbells. There’s a few gospel numbers featuring veteran lap player and vocalist Ghent who belts a terrific version of “No Cheap Seats in Heaven”, the album’s closer. Randolph and a couple of the Slide Brothers do the blues justice with Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying”, made popular by Stevie Ray Vaughn. The showstopper in my opinion is a Calvin Cook original – “Help Me Make It Through” with Calvin on vocals and steel, backed by drums and bass.
“Robert Randolph presents the Slide Brothers” is a perfect sacred steel showcase for the uninitiated and fans of this genre. It’s a damn good guitar album. - Eric Berg