Robert Randolph & The Family Band, The Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 11/02
Robert Randolph & The Family Band pose a unique challenge to the music reviewer. How to maintain objectivity alongside honesty? There is, in the jamband community, a tendency to heap unconditional praise upon every new act that comes along. More often the not, the lauds are inflated if not unfounded. Naturally, those of us who wish to escape this tendency overcompensate by looking and listening specifically for any flaw we can latch onto. This was my third Family Band performance and after two hours, the only complaint I could muster was that it ended too soon.
Randolph and crew took the stage fashionably late at 11:30. This may have helped fuel anticipation in an already pumped audience, but it came at the expense of 30 extra minutes of music – a shame on a night when the crowd sucked in every note as if it were the last. The Family Band kicked things off with a hot salsa number driven by Marcus Randolph's intense drumming and Danyel Morgan's funky bass. They followed this with what was ostensibly a spontaneous jam. If indeed it was spontaneous, credit the Family Band for making it seem otherwise through sheer cohesion. As tight as a drum, the whole band provided an inspirational rhythm from which Robert launched a vocal jam like a rocket ship over the audience. "Joy!", he sang. "Joy Joy! I get JOY thinkin' 'bout what you done for me!" He repeated this refrain over and over, each time with increased intensity. As the energy level rose on stage, the audience responded by dancing hard enough to make the floor shake. Then, in mid rap, he began talking – no – PREACHING to the already sweaty crowd about how thankful he was to be able to come back to the Bowery. It had been a year and a month since his original debut here in front of 20 people, and the swelling crowd now packed to the rafters clearly moved him. Peppering his speech with references to the recent terrorists attacks just south of the club, he sought (successfully) to reassure the crowd that the power of soul is far stronger than the evil that felled the Twin Towers.
Now it was time to march. While the band laid down a groove that mirrors Joe Scott's "Lovelight", Randolph alternated between playing his pedal steel and leading the crowd in "The March", a triumphant marriage of Southern Gospel and John Phillip Sousa. Randolph marched in place and up to the edge of the stage while John Ginty played a lead on his Hammond organ that could only be described as jaw-dropping. Then the Family Band brought the crowd to the Delta via Slim Harpo's "Shake your Hips". Each instrumentalist took a solo on this one, and the once "shy" Robert shook his hips furiously in an effort to get the crowd to do the same. If grandpa Ted Beard taught him how to make the pedal steel sing, a year and a half on the road has definitely taught Randolph the subtle art of showmanship.
What followed was quite possibly the most bone-chilling, heart-pounding musical performance anywhere in the city of New York that evening. "I Don't Know What You Came To Do" was more than just a declarative statement. It was a call to arms. Featuring a lead melody bordering on hard rock and a drum beat like a freight train from Marcus Randolph, the gospel/blues/funk/metal extravaganza whipped the crowd into a genuine frenzy. And as if the music wasn't enough, Robert again turned showman – clapping his hands, stomping his feet, leaping from and abandoning his chair, and performing the sort of musical acrobatics rarely seen since James Brown's heyday. The audience responded by again shaking the floor with the weight of hundreds of stomping feet. And just as the band's silence left the crowd thinking the song was over, a beaming Randolph would jump back to the pedal steel and start in on the melody again. He did this not once, but three times to great effect.
The show ended with the inspiring "Press On" segueing into "Ted's Jam". "Press On" bore particular relevance to the New York crowd, and featured Danyel Morgan singing the chorus in octaves high enough to reach the heavens. As the final notes of this slow gospel tune were played, the familiar opening strains of the audience favorite "Ted's Jam" began swirling out of Ginty's Hammond and Robert Randolph's guitar. This rollicking barn burner of a tune featured some of the most intense and spot on pedal steel of the evening, made all the more impressive when considering Randolph had just played nonstop with similar intensity for almost two hours. The end came all too soon, but the fans were rewarded with the chance to meet and greet the Family Band at a CD signing in the Bowery's basement lounge.
One does not simply watch Robert Randolph & the Family Band perform. One experiences them. It is an experience that gives hope to those who fear the improvisational music genre that grew up in the early 90's has been stalled by banality and lyrical vacuity. Though the band has maintained a tour schedule that keeps them close to their home state of NJ, it will not be long before the nation and the world calls them away. Those in the Mid-Atlantic or New England would do well to see the Family Band in an intimate setting, before the opportunity is gone for good.