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Published: 2003/12/30
by Tom Baker

Robert Randolph and the Family Band, The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA- 12/27

I saw The Return of the King the night before Robert Randolph and the Family Band turned up at the Tabernacle, and I only mention that because the Lord of the Rings movies are a good bit like a RRFB show: both are full of cool stuff that I don't quite understand. Just as I don't quite get all that business about the Elves and undying lands, I'm not sure how Robert Randolph does what he does with the pedal steel; under Randolph's hands, the instrument burns like it rarely has before, unleashing a scary but beautiful wail almost Hendrixian in its majesty (more on him later—-and before you send that email, remember I said "ALMOST"), a pealing, unearthly sound that has picked Randolph and his band up and carried them from nowhere to the brink of being huge. It's an enigma, this modest but effervescent young musician with the power to almost stop time inside a chord progression. Part of the mystery might be that because he's sitting down, it's harder to make out exactly what he's doing to the thing; he might be playing it, or that flurry of moving fingers and operatic gestures might be conjuring some kind of wizard's spell.

But I do know this much: from New Jersey churches to Bonnaroo and four-star reviews in major music magazines is a long strange trip by anyone's estimation. That's the surreal path that RRFB has been walking, but it may be time to start asking what's more important to the band: just having a ball, or really trying to get somewhere? Many a Next Big Thing has rolled up to the starting line of success only to find that they spent all their gas getting there. Once a band has become the Flavor of the Month, fame comes with a ticking clock attached at the hip, and if they want to outlive Warhol's fifteen minute prediction, these would-be superstars had better come up with a way to really stick. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the quandary I see for Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Fortunately for RRFB, though, it's not yet too late.

A big patch of the Randolph & co. repertoire hammers the same points again and again: love, love, and more love, then a little trouble in the world, then some more love. Nice enough sentiment to be sure, and there are a lota LOTof good songs about love out there; it's an inexhaustible topic, with enough different stories to tell as there are people in the world. But these songs always seem to circle back to the same point, again and again and againthe Sly and the Family Stone-ish "I Need More Love" (from the recently released "Unclassified"), the perseverance anthem "Pressing My Way," the crest and break strategy of the instrumental "Squeeze." Randolph and his bandmates (Danyel Morgan on bass, Marcus Randolph on drums, and Jason Crosby on keys) have dialed in a nice, tight, groove, and Randolph is a charismatic, infectiously gleeful performer. But even though energy level isn't a problem, it doesn't take long for an RRFB show to start to feel like a session on the exercise bike or treadmillyou're working your butt off, but you just don't seem to be getting anywhere, and the resolute repetition just seems to give all the songs lead feet, no matter how high they want to fly. Or to put it another way, "I Need More Love" is a bouncy, joyful affirmation, but it also sounds more automatic and machine-tooled the longer it goes, and at this point it's not even as accomplished a love song as even, say, .38 Special's "Caught Up In You."

A couple dozen female audience members got invited to the stage for the ZZ Top-esque riff of "Shake Your Hips," but the stunt created no real effect other than that dull oh-wow factor that arises when something appears to be spontaneous and risky but really isn't. Even the ladies joining the onstage fray seemed a little lost, unable to find anything to energize themselves or the crowd beyond a little random boot-scootin'; as a celebration of the power of Randolph's sound it was oddly listless, good but not good enough, not by a longshot. Randolph stood up and plugged in for a couple of tunes, a change to the band's show since the last time I saw them, but apparent mixing problems found his stand-up work essentially lost in space (poor sound also undermined J.J. Grey's guest appearance on "People Get Ready" and technical difficulties brought the climactic "Squeeze" to an unplanned close—who knows how much longer it would've gone on otherwise). It wasn't until a clutch of covers sprinkled through the midsection of the setthe snooping Whodunit-beat of "Billie Jean" dashing against the churn of Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times," plus a nod to Herbie Hancock with "Axel F," Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," and Hendrix's "Purple Haze"that the whole affair started to shake off that rigidly elliptical mentality and turn toward something truly loose and spontaneous, that unique melting point of all the disparate rock, R&B, funk, and folk influences and titanic talent at Randolph's fingertips. The taste of Hendrix was especially appropriate, because Randolphat least in this context—plays his instrument with much more of Jimi's secular, carnal fervor than one typically finds in church revivals or the work of those musicians who made pedal steel such a tear-in-your-beer-roadhouse bar staple. But when you can wail like Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn, why shackle your talent to songs that don't really go anywhere?

So maybe I'm being a little ungenerous here, trying to end the band's honeymoon with success much too soon. After all, RRFB are a young band (Randolph is still only in his mid-20s) on the way up, they have talent to burn, and they're obviously having fun. So they should consider the problem not as one of being half-empty but rather half-full. They're halfway there on talent and heart, now they should think about sitting down and maturing their songs. The future is wide open terrain for a band this talented, and if they aren't already satisfied by the part of the journey they've completed, they'd do well to work next on extending their songwriting reach.

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