ROBERT RANDOLPH AND THE FAMILY BAND at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (July 14). $15. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
If Robert Randolph's shoulders are getting sore from carrying the whole sacred steel genre on his back, the 24-year-old pedal steel phenom shows no signs of discomfort, and he certainly isn't slowing down. Having made his reputation as the "Jimi Hendrix of sacred steel" by wowing tie-dyed hordes of Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler and Phish fans on the jam band festival circuit, Randolph has been busily producing albums for artists on his own Dare label along with his own rousing new Unclassified (Warner) disc, set for release August 5. It promises to be the mainstream breakthrough that Randolph has been threatening.
Many people who knew Randolph's blasting ability were surprised by his relatively low-key approach on The Word (Ropeadope), a one-off collaborative project with John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars. They wondered what happened to all the wah-wah flash and fire. Evidently, he was saving it up for the jubilant Unclassified, which shakes, shouts and shimmies with holy furor like nothing he's released before.
The stylistically diverse set, which blends elements of blues, funk and jazz with raucous revival-meeting gospel in concisely cut songs, proves that there's much more going on with Randolph and his Family Band than the unfortunate jam band tag indicates.
"Early on we went through this thing where people at labels were saying I was just another jam band noodler and I could never do conventional three- and four-minute songs. For them it was all about fitting into existing formats and genre classifications. That's why everything on radio sounds the same, and current artists never get to grow and develop original voices like artists of the past.
"The reason I called the album Unclassified is because what we're doing can't be categorized as any one thing, you know, just like the music of Led Zeppelin - it's blues, it's rock, it's pop, it's folk and at times it's even jazz. And Led Zeppelin had songs on their albums that were six and seven minutes long. That never was a problem for them."
Certainly the extended jams on Led Zeppelin's chart-topping new How The West Was Won (Warner) live triple CD set haven't hurt sales.
What's more intriguing is that Randolph uses Led Zeppelin to make his point. Until just recently, such secular music - particularly that made by occult-obsessed rock heathens - was off-limits to Randolph as a member of the House of God, Church of the Living God - Keith Dominion.
Randolph is part of the first generation of sacred steel players to grow up having the sacred steel elders as their primary influence, unlike their Keith Dominion forebears who looked to country and western twangers like Speedy West and Lloyd Green for inspiration.
So although Randolph's raunchy, distorted rips may sound like they were copped from Hendrix, he actually picked that up from his main mentor, the Detroit-based Calvin Cooke, whose debut album Randolph just finished recording.
"I really only started getting into Hendrix two years ago. He's definitely a great guitarist, but personally I relate more to the soulful playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He has this way of wringing the essence out of each note like he's squeezing the juice out of an orange.
"His version of Hendrix's Voodoo Chile just knocked me out. After hearing that, I started trying to play my steel the way Stevie Ray played his guitar."
Randolph's own take on Voodoo Chile has become a crowd-pleasing highlight of his shows, but he hasn't yet recorded his own version of it - although he did quote the familiar riff during the outro of the track Nobody, on Unclassified. Yet that's as close as Randolph is willing to get.
"We were going to record Voodoo Chile for this album, but I decided against it after someone pointed out that the last two guitarists who recorded the song wound up dead."
It appears to be nothing more than a sad coincidence, but Randolph isn't willing to tempt fate.
"Let's see: two guys who are considered guitar heroes with really fast-growing careers both record Voodoo Chile and both wind up dying under strange circumstances. I'm not superstitious, but that freaked me out enough to think maybe it's not such a good idea to record that song right now."