Cody Dickinson, drummer of the band the Word, turns to pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph as they sit on a sofa in the House of Blues dressing room before their concert on Friday.
"Tell him about the deal you made in Mississippi," Dickinson says to his cohort.
"The deal?" asks Randolph, casually strumming an acoustic guitar.
"You know, you went to the crossroads .... "
"Oh right," says Randolph, remembering the legend of blues singer Robert Johnson's selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical gift. The two laugh. Randolph may play the pedal steel guitar as if he's possessed, but the covenant tied to his extraordinary abilities comes from above, not below.
Randolph, 24, is a prodigy of the "sacred steel" genre of gospel music, which has thrived in a network of African American Pentecostal churches. As early as the 1930s, steel guitars were employed in the place of costly organs. Though normally associated with country music, the instrument proved the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic praise of the preachers and congregations.
Until about a year ago, Randolph, whose father is a deacon and mother a minister at the House of God in Orange, N.J., had only played in church-related settings.
Now, though, he's brought the exhilarating rush of his music into the rock arena. In addition to his church duties, Randolph's been fronting what amounts to a gospel-themed jam band combining the young, Delta-rooted North Mississippi Allstars (Dickinson, his brother Luther on guitar and bassist Chris Chew) and progressive jazz organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood).
As the Word, they recently released a terrific instrumental album and have been playing some shows in between their respective main gigs.
With the Word and with his own group, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, the steel guitarist has been generating a different kind of ecstatic praise, picking up comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and even Jimi Hendrix.
On stage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood Friday, it was a stunning display all around. Randolph has no difficulty adapting his playing to a non-church setting, while the other musicians have gained a solid feeling for the gospel styles. The North Mississippi Allstars already had established themselves as one of the best entries on the jam circuit, thanks to their informed and honest blues roots (they hail from the birthplace of the blues, and the Dickinsons are sons of rock and blues producer-musician Jim Dickinson). With the Word, the depth of expression has increased, as traditional songs ("I Shall Not Be Moved," "At the Cross") and a few originals were taken on extended flights of fancy.
Luther Dickinson, already a guitarist of skill and feeling, has obviously learned a lot from Randolph and put it to good use in fluid, stinging solos that often recall Allman but take on a distinct character. Medeski, an innovative force with his popular trio, has also found the gospel form a fruitful foundation for his imaginative, percussive organ playing. And Cody Dickinson and Chew provided booming, churning rhythms that had the muscular surety required for great gospel and the limberness that elevates a jam band beyond mere noodling.
But the star was unquestionably Randolph, a naturally hammy entertainer who employed just about every trick in the pedal steel book (and a bunch of his own) to make his strings sing, shout, squeal and sigh.
He's also taken a lot of Allman's melodic instincts, as well as Vaughan's sizzle, though he never really sounds like anyone else.
The Allstars and Medeski had separately discovered sacred steel music via a series of albums showcasing such acts as Aubrey Ghent, Glenn Lee and the Campbell Brothers, released over the past four years by Arhoolie Records, a small Bay Area label specializing in blues and folk music. The young musicians eventually started talking about teaming for a project based on the style. Around the same time, the Allstars were given a recording of Randolph by a friend.
"It was the first song on the 'Sacred Steel Live' CD, and it was amazing," says Luther Dickinson, in the dressing room before the show.
"We had a show coming up in New York City and said, 'Hey, this guy is in New Jersey. See if he can open for us.'" That date at the Bowery Ballroom was Randolph's first outside of a church context. Soon he was invited to anchor the Word, and he found himself more and more in the world of rock, which took a little adjustment, but not a lot.
"He used to only wear his altar boy outfit," jokes Medeski, as Randolph rolls his eyes.
Randolph says, though, that some church members did question the move--not on religious grounds, but on the interest a secular audience would have in gospel sounds.
"I get from church people, 'The white people like that?'" he says. "I told them, 'You gotta see it--they go crazy just like us! They're clapping on the wrong beats, though.'"
Friday's crowd mostly got the beats right, and certainly got the spirit.
And when the group closed its breathless two hours on stage with a version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," the worlds of the House of Blues and the House of God had merged in mutual glory.