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Published: 2003/08/28
by Brian Ferdman

Unclassified – Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Warner Brother Records 48472-2

Anyone who has ever experienced a Robert Randolph & The Family Band concert
can speak volumes about the energy, excitement, and communal joy inside the
venue. Robert Randolph exudes charisma, and his unique blend of pedal steel
blues, rock, and gospel forms an instant connection with the listener. His
live performances are part concert, part revival meeting, and audience
members become active participants in the experience.

After Warner Brothers announced plans to take the W.C. Handy Award-winning
Randolph into the studio, one big question mark hovered in the air: How
could Randolph's boisterous revivalist style be squeezed into the confines
of a studio album? In truth, this question is quite common amongst jambands
who excel in the live setting. Countless times I've read about a band that
says, "This studio album really captures our live sound." Unfortunately,
the product never quite succeeds at meeting its lofty goals, primarily
because studios aren't concert venues. There is no way to truly recreate a
live concert on a studio album.

Fortunately, Robert Randolph & The Family Band make no attempt to duplicate
their live sound on Unclassified. Instead, they team with
co-producer Jim Scott to create a new sound on a very polished but energetic
studio album. Overdubs allow Randolph to work with both electric and
acoustic guitars alongside his signature pedal steel, and heavy producing
transforms his vocals from off-key rasps to fierce and growling preaching.
With Scott at the helm, each song is a tight and finely-crafted piece of
music placed in an order that flows smoothly from one track to another.

Fans will not be disappointed by the rousing versions of live favorites,
such as "Squeeze," "Good Times (3 Stroke)," or the absolutely raucous
disc-closing "Run For Your Life." The expansive fat is trimmed away from
these scorchers, and what remains are dense and vigorous runs through
intense compositions. Randolph's leads and solos are top-notch, and Danyel
Morgan's extremely chunky basslines give the tunes a very danceable
backbone. When Morgan cuts loose on "I Need More Love," it's almost
impossible to avoid comparing his tremendous skills to those of Sly and The
Family Stone's Larry Graham.

Ballads have long been this band's minor weakness, but that's not the case
on this album. "Soul Refreshing" and "Problems" serve as nice changes of
pace. The improved vocals make a world of difference, and it's nice to hear
John Ginty get a rare chance to shine on piano. With fantastic work by
guest vocalists Lenesha Randolph and Ricky Fowler, "Smile" becomes a
beautifully uplifting number. Robert goes to town on the acoustic, and he
turns in a vibrant and rich weave of poignant lines and solos.

The band's sound may change in this studio environment, but this album still
captures the exceptional energetic essence of Robert Randolph & The Family
Band. It's quite an accomplishment, and I think there's a strong chance
this noteworthy achievement will be recognized by mainstream awards a few
months down the line. The mainstream should be ready to accept Robert
Randolph, and those of us in the underground should be prepared to let him
go. Honestly, I think that Randolph's presence in the mainstream can only
be a positive force. He won't lose his integrity, and he just might raise
pop music to a new level. Why should we be the only ones to hear Randolph's
message of joy? It's time for Robert Randolph and the Family Band to go
forth and preach to the masses. The world will benefit from his good vibes,
and we can take solace in the fact that our boy has done us proud.

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