Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Park West, Chicago, IL- 6/26
Photo by Dino Perrucci
Upon entering the venue, Chicago’s Park West seems like an odd place for a Robert Randolph show. Not because of the glow of the deep purple lighting – it actually complements the band’s mostly-black attire and Robert’s bright red pants. Not because of the intimate nightclub setup – this is a typical setting for a RRTFB show. It’s odd because there are chairs and tables around the perimeter of the venue – and if you’ve been to a Robert Randolph show, you know there’s no time for sitting once the pedal steel guitar is out.
Nonetheless, a crowd clad in a mixture of faded Bonnaroo shirts and just-got-off work attire fills the quaint Chicago venue on an unseasonably cold Thursday night in June. As if he wasn’t walking out to address a large crowd full of anxious fans, Randolph nonchalantly takes his position onstage behind the candy apple red pedal steel that sits directly in the bright, white spotlight. Still barley addressing the audience, Randolph situates himself in his simple, wire chair and begins taking his fans to church. As he picks an upbeat and smooth gospel-esque melody, his embroidered “RR” sweatbands become an ironic white blur as he shows the crowd that what he’s doing is, indeed, an athletic feat.
Amidst the opening jam that has Randolph’s nose nearly touching his instrument, fans hear the familiar spiraling picking of “Back to the Wall,” a tune from the band’s 2010 album, We Walk This Road. Randolph’s little sister, Lenesha – on vocals – is toward the back of the stage, but fans know she’s there from the moment she throws out her signature shimmy and her strong, distinct voice kills the song’s hook. Taking the energy a notch higher, the band launches into the up-tempo “Amped Up” from its newest album, Lickety Split. Randolph – face twisted and eyes shut as if the music is hitting him hard in the chest with every note – is sweating already as the band finishes the second song of the night.
Between hard swigs of Coca-Cola, Randolph leads the band through an hour and a half of high energy, jubilant tunes and long, welcomed jams. Little sister steals the show during several numbers, including newer track “New Orleans,” which has her voice and body rocking naturally through the deep, low jam. “Lickety Split” – the title track off the band’s newest album and one of Randolph’s self-proclaimed favorites as it is reminiscent of a song he played in church – is a highlight of the night. The rocking, bouncing track has Randolph pushing his instrument onto just two legs as he and the crowd stomp and twist in unison. From the kicking of his chair to the floor to the last, hard riff he plays from his knees, Randolph has the whole room moving by the end of the song.
“How ya’ll feeling tonight, Chicago?” Randolph shouts as he wipes the sweat from his face. What follows is a mix of old and new, laced with nods to several covers. A mid-set jam weaves in and out of “Voodoo Chile” – a cover Randolph has been known to put his own twist on— and the funky, pedal steel-led “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” instrumental seems to send Randolph’s positive vibes throughout the venue. Other covers included a swift Red Hot Chili Peppers tease (“Give It Away.”)
Throughout the night, Randolph gives and shares plenty of the love, recognizing his bandmates – from his cousin Marcus on the drums to his cousin Ray-Ray. He even shares the stage with the crowd, inviting three separate fans to jam with him. But during the last song of the set, each of his bandmates exit separately, leaving Randolph alone with nothing but his instrument and the sounds of his own beat boxing. He walks off the stage alone – leaving as unassuming as he came – and is joined again by his bandmates for the closing number. As the band finishes a cool jam-laden “You Just Might Be the One,” the joy on Randolph’s face confirms that he’s as satisfied with his performance as the crowd.