Growing up, Robert Randolph was only allowed to listen to Christian and gospel music. But he listened to lots and lots of it.
Raised in the House of God denomination, where the pedal steel (a.k.a. the sacred steel) is at the forefront of worship songs, Randolph developed an early ear for the sort of uplifting slide guitar work that hordes of young folks will gladly flock to this Sunday night; he just played it in the morning.
Things changed when a friend gave a 19-year-old Randolph tickets to see Stevie Ray Vaughan. "After that, I wanted to play pedal steel like Stevie Ray played his guitar," says Randolph. "I wanted to take another path than the people who played traditional pedal steel to take it to a whole new level."
And he has. Robert Randolph & The Family Band — featuring Danyel Morgan on bass and Marcus Randolph on drums — have jammed with everyone from Eric Clapton to The Roots. But until recently, Randolph hasn't fully explored the history of the music that he's now a part of. So for the band's new album We Walk This Road (to be released in June), Randolph recruited an icon — studio producer and Academy Award-winner T Bone Burnett.
"We wanted someone who understood me and the road I've walked this far, who understood our connections of my roots within rock and gospel and the church, who would help us put those things in their most compelling context," says Randolph. "T Bone opened a lot of doors for me, serving as a link between the past and the present. He knows how to take something from the past and bring it into the present while still allowing the artist to make it his own, in the same way that Hendrix took Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower' and made it belong to him."
Randolph and Burnett pored through a century of music, pulling songs and lyrics to rework into modern arrangements. In the last year and a half, Randolph claims he's spent more than $5,000 on iTunes "catching up" with the musical roots he'd previously missed. We Walk This Road, which follows Randolph's recent studio collection Colorblind (featuring the single "Get There"), includes everything from Bob Dylan's "Shot of Love" to Prince's "Walk Don't Walk." Ben Harper sings and plays guitar on Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way," while Leon Russell contributes his piano to closing track "Salvation."
"We connected the last 100 years of African-American music in the way people used to. You write your own songs, you cover other people's material, you rework older songs," says Randolph. "I think even though I'm a young guy who was born into the era of hip-hop and contemporary gospel, I can help bridge the cultural gap between people who are 75 years old and kids who are 15 years old by reaching back into this history of music."
Randolph's Charleston appearance is the fourth stop on his spring tour in support of the new record.
Local station The Bridge at 105.5 coordinated his appearance, headlining the 4th Annual First Flush Festival at the Charleston Tea Plantation. The event marks the early summer "first flush" of new growth tea, said to produce the freshest and best tea of the year. In addition to the music, attendees can tour the nation's only operating tea plantation, including a trolley ride through the fields and all the free iced tea they can drink.
Joining Randolph & The Family Band in the musical lineup are Wisonsin-based Americana rocker Cory Chisel and local favorites Crowfield, along with singer/songwriters Mark Bryan (of Hootie & The Blowfish), Mac Leaphart, Amber Caparas, and John Wesley Satterfield.
Chucktown Music Group — a music company founded by Bryan — will run a side stage between sets with a variety of local acts, including a gospel performance from the New Bethlehem Baptist Church and the Edith L. Frierson Steppers.
Organizer Joel Frank — the music director, assistant programming director, and afternoon disc jockey at The Bridge at 105.5 — says he's particularly excited about presenting the lineup at a picturesque venue like the tea plantation.
"We have wanted to book Robert Randolph & The Family Band for three years, but it has never been able to work out with his touring and recording schedule," says Frank. "This year, he is about to release a new record, and the stars aligned for him to be able to come play the First Flush Festival. With the great organic sounds that Randolph produces, mixed with the scenery of the Charleston Tea Plantation, this should be a magical day."