Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT- 3/4
Robert Randolph is now a certified rock and roll star. There were several signs foreshadowing this: an appearance at the Grammy awards, a forthcoming tour with Eric Clapton, and the approval of pop icon Prince for starters. To this end, Randolph's recent New Haven sweatfest felt akin to a Dave Matthews Band concert circa 1994. Sure, there were traces of Randolph's original jamband audience, but, over the past twelve months, The Family Band's fan base has swelled to include all facets of concert goers: hippies, hipsters, long haired rockers, well-groomed Greek pledges, and, of course, the twelve tank-topped clad teens that found their way on stage for a tango or two.
This all makes sense as despite his tendency to include quite a bit of improv in his marathon-length concerts, Randolph just isn't psychedelic enough to play the jamband circuit forever. A musician's musician, Randolph was rightfully welcomed into jam nation with open arms after playing gigs as a member of the Word and at private parties for the NYC Freaks. But, like DMB and Blues Traveler before him, Randolph also walks the thin line between viciously rocking out and outright jamming, not that one of these two distinctions warrants more respect than the other.
Opening with an instrumental version of Michael Jackson's disco hit "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough," Randolph set a party tone for his festive, two-hour performance. Certainly unintentionally, Randolph's song choice also hit a deeper note. Much like Michael Jackson during his pre-freakout musical peak, Robert Randolph is crossing both racial and musical boundaries. Not only is Randolph one of the few African American performers making waves within the jamband community, he is, by his own admission, one of the few African American musicians performing on television in a non-rap related context. Evoking memories of Motown's gospel groups of yesteryear, Randolph chose long ago to round out the Family Band's rhythm section with his actual family members, resetting his Church's communal vibe in a decisively secular context. As the Family Band's fan base begins to solidify, one can see the Family Band's less visible members searching for their own musical identity. Marcus Randolph smiled like a budding Carter Beauford, setting the show's rhythmic pace and keeping carefully in sync with his more recognizable cousin. Slim bassist Danyell Morgan also proved his musical might, while crafting a quiet, secret-weapon persona of sorts in the stage's most inconspicuous area. Guest guitarist Joey Williams, known for his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama, clearly felt confident along side his temporary group, shredding his electric guitar and also stepping in on pedal steel for a few solos of his own. Yet, its former New York City Wetlands' denizen Jason Crosby who has emerged as Randolph's right hand man and foil: a bandana-clad rock star in his own right.
Shying away from his earlier material, as captured on the gospel-inspired Live at the Wetlands, Randolph's first trip to Toad's Place segued between rabid rockers and slower, fiddle-friendly moments. These days, Randolph's sound is more rhythmic and bass heavy, favoring funky rockers or slower, more soulful cuts. More than ever, the Family Band has learned to pace their set, interspersing twangy guitar jams between hectic steel pedal solos. Crosby should also be rightfully credited for helping round out the Family Band's sound. Tackling keyboards, fiddle, and harmony vocals, the former Zen Trickster filled in the Family Band's holes like a dentist fixing a cavity, making the group shine.
Finally emerging as a confident front man, Randolph let his crowd sing the chorus of potential hit "I Need More Love" and spent a good portion of the show playing his guitar behind his head. He also showcased his own solidifying lead vocals on a fully played-out cover of "Purple Haze." Taking a stab at guitar and, at one point, drums, Randolph riled up his audience by teasing jamband musicianship within the context of more clearly defined songs. At one point, Randolph and his family band even engaged in a Chinese fire drill of sorts, testing their might on each other's instruments (Marcus Randolph is quite the pedal steel player himself). Jumping between his own crowd pleasers like "Nobody," righteous rock and fun, jamband-friendly riffs on scores like "the Beverley Hills Cops Theme," Randolph rocked Toad's Place like Dave Matthews must have when he debuted "Ants Marching" a few short years ago.
Falling just short of a sold-out show, Randolph's Thursday evening engagement felt like the last chance to see Randolph in a true-club setting. Surely, larger theaters and more frequent arena opening shots are on the guitarist's horizon given his widening fan base. Taking a quick glance along the walls of Toad's Place, which sports pictures of the famous acts who cut their teeth at the club, one can also imagine Randolph's mug plastered up there before too long. Yet, as friend of mine so dutifully noted while comparing Randolph's New Haven show to an early tour performance at Latham, NY's Saratoga Winners, Randolph is odd in that he doesn't draw the same type of audience at every show he plays. Instead, the guitarist's unique musical talent seems fascinating to all music aficionados, whether they are longhaired upstate New Yorkers or more urban fans of Sly Stone-style funk. Like Bela Fleck, whose audience often mixes seated adult patrons with adolescent aisle-dancers, Randolph is now known as an extension of his instrument and can be inserted into any concert setting as when a pedal steel is needed. And while more media exposure might turn Unclassified into an Under the Table and Dreaming crossover success, one thing is clear: some musicians were meant to be rock stars.