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Published: 2001/08/20
by Chip Schramm

self-titled – The Word

Ropeadope Records 93046
Special projects and unique studio collaborations can be an unpredictable
thing when it comes to improvisational music. Sometimes a lineup filled
with superb talent will fall flat because the right chemistry and
inspiration isn’t shared amongst the individuals who take part. In a few
cases, the hype preceding the release of an album simply isn’t fair to the
players who took part due to the time constraints limiting the resources or
energy that went into the actual recording and production. And on rarer
occasions, a group of reputable, respected musicians will turn out an album
that’s original expression and power surpass the sum of their collective
whole.
"The Word" is such an album.
The buzz about this project had been circulating throughout the music world
from industry types to grass-roots fans long before the actual release.
Could a project with the North Missisippi All-Stars and John Medeski really
be as good as the expectations were building it up to be? How about Robert
Randolph? The raw, unpolluted talent of this New York area steel guitar
player was turning on legions of live music addicts long before the album
was even officially promoted. How was he to fit in with these young yet
established players in the music world?
As it turns out, the common ground is religion. Not just a specific
Christian sect or gospel music itself, though this is certainly an
instrumental gospel album, but the religion that is expressed through
the ritual of musical performance. It is a religion that is based on the
traditions of spiritual hymns and the sacred steel guitar as an instrument
of pious expression for generations in the House Of God church. It’s the
soundtrack that paints the backdrop of laborers in the fields around Tippah
County, Mississippi, both today and 150 years ago.
The album is surprising, and not just because gospel sounds have been
supercharged with energetic jamming and jazzy improvisation. The most
surprising thing about the album is how Robert Randolph plays leader in the
band. From the very first track, Joyful Sounds, he plays lead on
pedal
steel, and the other four musicians back him, supporting him at every step.
John Medeski seems more than content to sit in the background, providing
long, sustained organ chords and fills to smooth out the edges here and
there.
Of course, blues is a common denominator amongst this family of musicians,
as Call Him By His Name clearly exhibits. Randolph bends and blends
his
steel chords while Medeski and the All-Stars from North Mississippi provide
solid rhythm to back him up. The end of that track breaks down into a
brief but frantic exchange amongst the group, as Randolph’s "testimony" on
pedal steel is answered by a forceful "amen" from the congregation he is
preaching to in the studio. Close your eyes and envision the spirit, but
don’t drop the collection plate.
Most of the album finds its roots in gospel, blues, and improvisational
jazz, with each musician bringing something to the table. Without
God is
the song from "Sacred Steel Live," the collaboration that gave Robert
Randolph his first recorded exposure to the world outside of his home
church in New Jersey. Not surprisingly, he has taken this one to a much
higher level on "The Word." Waiting On My Wings comes more from the
Mississippi and Memphis styles of blues and gospel, and Cody Dickinson’s
use of electric washboard is definitely a key ingredient in the mix.
The ultimate success of "The Word" stems from the even proportion of
influences donated by each musician. There is no doubt that Robert
Randolph plays lead on most of the album, but the subtle touches from Chris
Chew on bass transcend his lifetime of work in his church band back in
Mississippi. Both Chew and Randolph have surely spent more Sundays playing
for the congregation in church than they have in dark nightclubs playing
for fame and fortune. But with The Word, they may have found the best of
both worlds. Religious expression on this album will drive the listener
into uncontrollable charismatic motion and spiritual bliss. But don’t take
my word for it. This is an album that needs to be experienced first
hand before conversion can take place.

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