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Published: 2007/12/20
by Mike Greenhaus

The Word: Reinterpreting the Sacred Language

In retrospect, 2000 was a great time for jambands, especially in New York. The second wave of jam titans who dominated the 1990s, like Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and Aquarium Rescue Unit, had laid the groundwork for a healthy scene that, over the years, had expanded to include an incredible array of American roots music, from jazz to blues to country to blues to folk and gospel. While the downtown New York circuit that Medeski, Martin & Wood frequented in the early 1990s felt a world away from, say, the Grateful Dead’s Giants Stadium shows, by the summer of 2000 jam-scene regulars looked to the experimental avant-garde trio for inspiration and, also, advice on new bands. One of those groups was the North Mississippi Allstars—-the prodigal sons of Jim Dickinson (Luther and Cody) and their high-school friend (Chris Chew), who had figured out an original recipe based around their hereditary roots music, punk rock and ARU’s psychedelic improvisation.

At the same time, New Jersey-native Robert Randolph was dividing his time between playing pedal steel in his House of God church and the life of an ordinary law clerk. He played his first proper New York City show at the Lakeside Lounge in the fall of 2000 and, as Luther Dickinson explains below, met the North Mississippi Allstars just a few days later at the then relatively new Bowery Ballroom. Randolph sat-in, recorded an album with the Allstars and Medeski as The Word, and, by early 2001, scored his first gig at Wetlands. The pedal steel act became the fabled club’s last great success story, earned the respect of New York tastemakers and has since played shows for everyone from Eric Clapton to, unfortunately, Dick Cheney.

In certain ways, The Word represents a certain time in the scene’s growth, when a new, young generation of musicians were banding together to spread the, well, word about their new sound. And though the group has only performed only once since the early 00s (Bonnaroo 2005) the members of the group have each carved out successful careers both in-and-out of the jam-scene. Below, Luther Dickinson lets us know what’s in store for the quintet’s current round post-Christmas dates.

MG- For some readers who may have missed The Word the first time around, can you give us a refresher course on how this project first came together?

LD- It goes waaay back man to ’98. Medeski and MMW were the first band to take us on the road, which was super cool. And at the time both of us were just crazy about the first sacred steel record from [the label] Arhoolie. We were all listening to that all the time. For me, that was one of those records that just ends up changing your life, both musically and in other ways too. So we were on the road with MMW and just get to talking and we are all like, “man, we should just do an instrumental gospel record. Look at this cool genre and we can do our own thing.” So, two years later, all that talk is finally materializing and we have plans to record with [John Medeski] in Brooklyn.

At this point we were touring our first record in 2000 and we there was a new sacred steel record out there called Live. That was kind of Robert’s debut. He is on this one track called “Without God.” So we are listening to that a lot on the bus. Chris really pointed it out. He was like, “listen to thiswho is this guy.” So we would listen to that song like every night before we went onstage. And we had a New York City show about three weeks in advance so, just on a whim, it turned out we had a mutual friend with Robert. So we reached out and invited Robert to open the show. It was at the Bowery Ballroom and that was Robert’s first club date. Medeski was there, just watching from the side of the stage, and it was really cool. Robert and the Family Band opened the show and then we had him sit in during our encore and, by the end of the show, we had all left the stage and they closed the show. Everyone was just going, “What, what, what!” So we approached Robert that night and he didn’t know who we were and we asked him to join us at MMW’s Shacklyn studio a few weeks down the road. Sure enough, he came in for about 4 or 5 days and we made that record.

MG- Have you had a chance to listen back to The Word’s studio album recently? If so, what are your impressions of that disc at this point?

LD- Oh man, you know, it’s funny. In some ways it sounds a little rough. I don’t know, it was really a special time. Just look a Robert’s career. If that had come up a few years later, look what might not have happened. And in terms of our career, The Word really helped get our name out there too. So it was really a cool thing. And in a lot of ways it is all really a testament to how cool a dude Medeski is. He is really a standup guy!

MG- Yea, a lot of people pigeonhole him as a jazz musician, but he has dabbled in everything from Americana to hip-hop.

LD- Right. Yeah and he has produced lots of great records. He is really a smart dude.

MG- Looking ahead, how do you plan to fill out The Word’s setlist? Will you include any of your own tunes along with the material from The Word album?

LD- Nah, we won’t play any of our tunes. But we have the repertoire of tunes we have built up. We rehearsed yesterday with just Medeski and today Robert is going to join us as well, so we will see what he brings in. I put together a small batch of James Brown songs I think it might be cool to hear, in tribute to him, and Medeski is also good on that stuff. And Chris wrote a gospel song we are going to do and Cody wrote a song. We were talking about itin some ways I like the idea of not having whole songs, but sort of themes to run in-and-out throughout the show. When it really comes down to it, it is hard to rehearse with an improv-heavy band. Do you know what I mean? It really comes down to being there and doing it.

MG- Having played with both Robert and Medeski in a number of settings since 2001, the comfort level must be through the roof that this point.

LD- Yeah, definitely man. I think it helps and I think as everyone grows as musicians that is kind of what I was thinking when you asked about listening to the record. I think everyone is deeper into their thing, at least as far as my band is concerned. We’ve played a lot of music since then.

MG- In certain ways, the North Mississippi Allstars have become a portable unit, able to back everyone from John Spenser to John Hiatt.

LD- Oh, I love that man. It is something we have always looked up to. I mean our father was part of the tradition of the record company or the regional rhythm section, like the Muscle Shoals guys. It is like a group of players who can make a record with whoever comes through. So he kind of trained us to be able to make all different types of music and he kind of trained us over the years.

So hustling The Word out of nothing back in the day definitely stems from that. I mean all the projects really do, like Jon Spencer, JoJo [Hermann]. We are a unit, we can play with anybody and make it sound good. So I’ve always kind of aspired to that. We did a tour with Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples that was really cool. But part of what we have to do is kind of make our own arrangements. With Charlie’s material we didn’t learn it very wellhe was a little surprised. But by the second day when we had a hold on it, we had made our own arrangements and knew it really well. That’s the way I like to do it. I remember at the Jammys [in 2005] Umphrey’s was backing up different people and doing it really well. Huey Lewis and everyone. They did a great job tooI was really proud of them.

MG- And Robert has played with everyone from Eric Clapton to, um, Ozzy Osbourne.

LD- It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about it, but Robert and the Family Band do it too. They made a record with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Medeski does it with Scofield or whomever. I guess it is part of being part of a healthy scene.

MG- What stands out in your mind about The Word’s most recent reunion performance at Bonnaroo?

LD- I thought the rehearsal was off the chain! We should release that for real. But this should get a little deeper because we have some more shows and rehearsal time. But it is like riding a bike and once Robert hits those licks, we’re going.

MG- Does one Word performance in particular stick out as your favorite?

LD- I remember we played the L.A. House of Blues in like ’01 which was nuts. I don’t actually have a copy of it, the sound guy never gave it to me, so Phil hook me up! But that was really good. It was so funny man, back in the day, because The Word tour was one of Robert’s first tours. He was definitely green man [laughter].

MG- Besides Robert Randolph & the Family band, who are your favorite modern gospel musicians?

LD- The Lee Boys, man Alvin Lee is incredible. A lot of the material The Word does comes from their family. Alvin’s brother Glenn Lee wrote a lot of and really had a vision of the original second generation steel stuff. He actually died while we were making The Word record and recording his songs. But Roosevelt Collier is amazing.

I grew up with gospel music, my grandma played piano in church. Down in Mississippi, pretty much everyone will do a few gospel songs at the end of their set. It is kind of like a blues tradition. It is just a natural thing. We recorded a gospel song for the Crowes, it was happening Chris listens to a lot of contemporary gospel musicthat is his stuff. So I do hear a lot of it living with Chris on the bus.

MG- Speaking of touring, looking ahead to 2008, you are going to hit the road with both the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars. Do you feel you will be able to balance both bands on the road?

LD- This was the first year that we [the North Mississippi Allstars] really scaled back on touring and only did weekends. We worked on our album and I did the Crowes record. It felt awkward in a way not touring all the time, but we made good use of it. There has to be a middle ground. I just don’t believe you can tour constantly like we have for so long. I just don’t think it is healthy for a band. So I think ’07 was the beginning of us trying to find that balance. I don’t foresee much time off ’08, but it is all good.

MG- Can we expect more performances from The Word in the near future?

LD- I think it is one of those things we can do over the years until we are old men.

_Mike Greenhaus is probably home for the holidays, wading through the pile of Word handbills he’s stored at his parent’s house. For more, please read www.greenhauseffect.com

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