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The Word, The Showbox, Seattle, 1/18

“It’s Not Too Late”

Whenever a new twist on an old theme comes along, it either fails miserably or hits you like a ton of bricks. In the case of The Word, the case is definitely the latter. Take 1 cup of Soul, 2 cups of Southern Gospel laced inspiration and quart of Mississippi Rhythm and Blues. Stir it all together and simmer slowly with a whole lotta love and you have the makings of a powerful tonic that can bring down heaven and raise some hell. The recent collaboration of pedal steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph, keyboardist John Medeski and The North Mississippi All-Stars are blowing away congregations in every town they play. Within the first couple of songs I was unsure whether I should get up and dance or kneel down and pray. One thing for sure, whatever you call it, The Word is pure magic.

The concept began as the brainchild of guitarist Luther Dickinson and John Medeski to update and bring to the masses, the music of the southern Pentecostal House of God. Rooted in a tradition that dates back some 70 years, this church from the deep south incorporates raging pedal steel guitar into their services while the preachers deliver their weekly sermons. The “jams” can go on for hours. The musicians however, rarely if ever, play outside of religious functions and are relatively unknown outside of the church. They call this music “Sacred Steel” and it seems only natural that something as powerful as this should be shared with the rest of the world.

With a thunderous introduction/tune-up, the 5 members of this one-off collaborative effort of very talented individuals were off and running. “Without God” began the set with a wailing pedal steel guitar that must be experienced first hand to be believed. A sound so crisp and clear that until now, I did not know existed. Chris Chew on bass was keeping everyone on track while Luther’s brother Cody provided the backbeat. “At the Cross” followed and everyone was starting to get into this interesting “old yet new” sound. Imagine something that sounds like good old fashion southern rock, with some down home blues and a church revival feel all rolled into one. Next came “Call Him by His Name” with Randolph and Luther exchanging slide leads and then everyone segueing into a reggae style beat. An as yet untitled song that may or may not end up being called “Peek-a-Boo” followed. The joint was really cookin’ now as everyone in the Showbox was on their feet and dancing hard with smiles beaming all around.

Robert Randolph is a young 20-something, who seems musically wise beyond his years. Friendly and outgoing, he was talking and laughing with the people in the front row as if he were at a church social. As Randolph seems to be the focal point of this 5 piece powerhouse, it was obvious to me that, while every ticket holder in the house was having a blast, no one was having more fun than he was. He was leading as if he were a conductor in total control of the “orchestra” supporting him. The interplay between the various instrumentalists weaving in and out of improvisational jams was a sight to behold. While most of the songs played tonite can be found on the current release, listening to them live is necessary to do them any real justice. The band fits like a glove and it’s hard to believe that they have not been playing together for years.

Cody Dickinson kicked of the booming rhythm of “Waiting on my Wings” as everyone joined in and Robert took off playing his pedal steel as if someone were crying, ever pushing it higher and higher. Chaotic harmony is all I could think of as Luther’s fluid leads and sweet jams wound in and out and round and round. Then a little surprise. Robert got up from his pedal steel and replaced Cody on the drums while Cody hooked himself up and played an electric washboard. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but sure enough he had a washboard fitted with pick-ups that was plugged into an amp. As a side note it should be mentioned that while I hope he never quits his “day job,” Robert Randolph CAN play the drums.

Next was a great version of the classic “Keep your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”, and then “Joyful Sounds.” These were followed by an incredible 15 minute rendition of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” that seemed like it might never end. “I’ll Fly Away” closed out the 2 hour set and was topped off by a blistering “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye, with smoking solos and a guest appearance by Seattle’s own sax madman Skerik of Critters Buggin’, Garage A Trois, and Crack Sabbath.

This is one of those times when the sum of the parts is greater than the individual components. The members of this band complement each other so well that if this is the way to the promised land then put me on the first train. Given the fact that this group may never tour again in this configuration, I would seriously recommend that you clear your schedule and get your self down to see The Word. The tour runs down the west coast and ends at the Belly up in Solana, CA on January 26th. It it could be the thing that ultimately saves your ass!

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