Live at Wetlands – Robert Randolph and the Family Band Innocence and Despair – The Langley Schools Music Project
Family Band Records 001 Bar/None Records 122
I don't know much about what is called "Orff instrumentation". I do know
that it was used extensively on a recently released album called
Innocence and Despair, credited to the Langley Schools Music Project.
The basic gist is that there are no wrong notes. For a song in the key of C,
for example, one would simply arrange – say – a xylophone so that all the
notes that the player struck would sound good in the context of that song.
"Innocence and Despair" was recorded by two groups of nearly 60 Canadian
schoolchildren in the mid 1970s. It all works out.
Robert Randolph, meanwhile, is from New Jersey. Onstage – and on his new
record, Live at Wetlands – he plays a pedal steel guitar set in an
open tuning. This means that if one lays a bar across one fret and strums,
he produces a chord. Wrong notes are marginally easier to produce on a pedal
steel than they are on an Orff instrument (one need only put the slide on
the wrong fret), but – in some ways – the principle is darned similar. In
fact, it is this idea – not having to worry about fretting a chord – that
allows Randolph to dazzle with the lightning fast arpeggios he has swiftly
become known for.
Both Randolph and the Langley kids are, in some ways, musical outsiders. The
Langley kids, who recorded their versions of '60s and '70s pop songs
(including sizable chunks of the Brian Wilson songbook), certainly were not
trained musicians and existed quite far from the music and art worlds of the
their day. Likewise, as adolescents recording in the cavernous confines of
an elementary school gymnasium, they were blissfully unaware of the adult
world. This is why their rendition of the Beach Boys' "In My Room" is so
Growing up in House of God church, Randolph's knowledge of the
"Sacred Steel" style of playing was free of rock and roll preconception. It
wasn't until he had brought his Family Band act to secular audiences that he
was introduced to the work of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, and others.
This is why his rendition of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" (also covered by
the Stones on Exile On Main Street) is so damn rip-snorting.
Randolph's songs begin where others' end. The Grateful Dead and the Allman
Brothers, in particular, would often throw references to gospel tunes at the
end of long rock and roll rave-ups. A typical rock ending involves symbol
crashes, final drawn-out melodies from the guitar, and a big crunch. That's
where Randolph's songs commence. They are the sound beyond the end, the sound
of the hereafter. The songs build and they ascend, floating gently upwards.
By the end, the rest of the band drops out and all that's left is that
steel, the Sacred Steel, singing by itself, a voice from the other side, and – with an ominous thud – the door between worlds closes.
Thing is, it does sound like the Allmans, at least sometimes. The
open tuning allows Randolph to create harmonies with himself, similar to
Duane Allman and Dickey Betts' famous tandem leads. The difference is in the
energy and intent, which is what makes Randolph's music enthralling. Live
at Wetlands captures this mad dash far more accurately (and
interestingly) than The Word project — which featured Randolph alongside
John Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars. Perhaps part of the reason
for this is that The Word boys were paying homage to gospel music where The
Family Band is gospel music. One doesn't have to know this fact to
understand that truth: simply play the two albums side-by-side and decide
which is cooler.
Live at Wetlands is certainly exciting. The question, though, is
where Randolph can go from there musically. There is no doubt of his talent
or artistry. He has rapidly been embraced by the jamband scene in New York
City. There's no reason to doubt that he'll turn the rest of the country on
as well. But, from there? Sacred Steel is a traditional style of music.
Musically speaking, Randolph has already gone secular, removing most of the
verbal religious fervor from the music. At this point, it is perhaps too
early to read that move: will it water the music down for a more mainstream
audience outside the House of God Church, or is it the first step towards a
bold artistic progression?
That tension, too, is inherent on the record. What will happen? At the
Wetlands – the sweatiest of sweatboxes, and a den of debauchery, taboot – Randolph was physically far from the Church. And while music may be a
religion for some, it is not often organized and there certainly is no Hell
to be damned to (other than, perhaps, a ringing deafness). The Sacred Steel
craze in the jamband scene has all the makings of a fad, but – hey – who
The Langley kids found their answer long ago. Or, more accurately, they
didn't look for one. Hans Fenger was a hippie who somehow got a job teaching
music in the Langley school system. Soon, he was arranging pop songs for the
kiddies: for voice, and for a bunch of instruments – guitars, little bits of
drum sets, part of a Gamelan, electric basses, Orff xylophones – that he'd
managed to convince the school system to buy for him. The innocence of
children's voices has long been exploited. Usually, though, the route taken
is through cute caricatures of how adults think children's minds work —
A child's world is made up of obtusely cast shadows, heavy doors, screaming
adults, and stomping feet. It is a distillation of the life we face as
adults, often closer to Amelie than Barney. Children invent
their own creation myths for the objects and events they encounter, which
have a habit of hammering closer to the truth than most adults would be
willing to admit.
What we value about our favorite pop singers is their apparent sincerity.
What we value about our favorite songs is their apparent simplicity, their
ability to convey basic truths. What singer can sing simple lyrics without a
trace of doubt? How can a fully formed adult really sing a silly pop song
without remembering all the pain in the world? Kids are certainly not immune
to the outside, but their view of things is often filled with different
problems. It's not that they can't understand adult travails, but that they
will sometimes understand them all too well.
Yeah, it's voyeuristic (and maybe a little pedophilic), then, to listen to a
little girl sing "The Long and Winding Road", but at least we can stop
wondering about cheesiness. Kids are almost naturally and terminally
incapable of it, at least without the guidance of those meddling adults. In
its way, this is also what makes Robert Randolph's music attractive as a
reinvention of rock and roll. For now, it is gospel music that forgets about
the sheer spectacle of it all. At this stage in his career, Randolph has too
little experience to be musically jaded. His path has been so straight and
direct that the right notes still mean what they did the first time you