Im So Glad I Found Jesus from the live album Its No Secret
Want to make it in the music biz, but worried your playing's not up to snuff? Go Christian. One of music's most lucrative genres, the God-fearing stations at FM's low end put the message before the music. Three chords and the good news is all you need to rake it in, skill and talent be damned.
Thank God there are bands like the Lee Boys that buck that trend, spreading an uplifting message of salvation through music so irresistibly impressive that even the legions of hell throw their hands in the air and shake. Out of the House of God church's "sacred steel" tradition, the Miami-based Lee Boys play songs with titles like "Sinner Man" and "I'm So Glad I Found Jesus" to crowds largely consisting of fans of Southern rock and jam. They're the rare band that can wow crowds both at Bonnaroo and Cornerstone (the nation's largest Christian music fest).
"The message is at the forefront," says bandleader and bass player Alvin Lee, on the phone from Miami the day before setting out on tour.
The family band consists of brothers Alvin, Derrick (vocals), and Keith (vocals), as well as the trio's nephews Roosevelt (pedal steel), Alvin Jr. (bass), and Earl (drums). They inherited their musical tradition from the elder members' father, the Rev. Robert E. Lee, the family's pedal steel patriarch. Alvin explains that their sound on tour is nearly identical to the music they grew up playing at the House of God.
"We were always the rebels of this style of music," says Alvin. "My father really was open minded. We always infused different things, different styles of sacred steel. We work hard, stay aggressive, and always think of pumping it hard."
Even the improvised, wilder parts of a Lee Boys show occur in church, during portions of the service focused on praise with jumping and dancing.
At their live shows, the Lee Boys don't hesitate to toss in an homage to their more secular influences, including Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Halfway through "Walk With Me Lord" on their forthcoming album, Live at Telluride, they drop into the ground-shaking riff from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." It's an unlikely combination that works well with a band not afraid to cross genres.
Later this year, the Lee Boys will tour with the Traveling McCourys, a new project conducted by the younger members of the Del McCoury Band. Alvin says that combining African-American sacred steel with traditional bluegrass comes naturally. In fact, many of the two genres' gospel songs have identical roots. The musicians have collaborated on stage at festivals over the last year and are planning a joint studio recording in 2009.
A similar musical friendship exists between the Lee Boys and Allman Brother's Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, who joins them for three shows on their current tour, including one at the Pour House.
"He's in our top three bass players in the world," says Alvin. "It's an automatic connection. He sings a lot of positive stuff, and it just works really good."
The Boys' current tour features a four-piece band (the singing brothers are obligated to day jobs in Miami). In their absence, Alvin shares vocals with Alvin Jr. and Oteil.
"We're definitely hyped and excited," says Alvin. The show will include a few covers, some Oteil numbers, and a heavy helping of pedal-steel infused jams.
Sacred steel music originated within the church, and when the Lee Boys spread their sound beyond the sanctuary walls, it raised some concerns within the House of God community. But Alvin says that spreading their positive message to fans is a daily motivator to keep playing.
"When fans come up to us and say they've been moved, that's one of the things that keeps me going," he says. "We usually get that at every show. And that's very important."