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Putting pedal to the metal

Robert Randolph blends searing rock, blues, soul, country, jazz and, yes, church music into some head-turning steel guitar sounds -- and it's earning high praise indeed.

June 06, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

An informal survey among the faithful would tell you just this: Since Robert Randolph's been making his joyful noise, the distance between heaven and Earth has measurably narrowed.

So too, for that matter, has the distance between blues and rock, country and soul, black and white and young and old.

Charting a straight line from his Orange, N.J., church home -- the House of God Church -- to New York clubs, jam-band festivals and arena dates, Randolph has been spreading his cross-pollinated version of the gospel on the pedal steel guitar -- rave-up fashion -- for any and all who come.

Those numbers are increasing -- day by day, city by city. Certainly faster than he can keep count.

Right this minute in his room at the Mondrian hotel above the Sunset Strip, he's more concerned with earthly, brass-tack matters, like paying the woman who just finished braiding his cornrows. Things have been so back-to-back crazy that Randolph opened his wallet to find he was fresh out of cash. "Do you have any money on you?" he sheepishly asks. "I haven't even had time to get to the ATM!"

The pedal steel guitar maestro has been on hyperdrive, ever since his out-of-the-box performance in the all-funk tribute alongside OutKast, Parliament Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire at the Grammys in February, where he took his church's "sacred steel" center stage to the secular world.

A dancing blur all over, under and behind his pedal steel, Randolph got more than a head turn -- all due to a whole lot more than his Julius Erving homage: a red, white and blue Sixers suit (yes, suit). The world didn't know what hit it.

"It was like, 'Ain't you the dude who did the guitar thing?' " says Randolph, settling onto a patio chair near the hotel's pool, steps away from the infamous Skybar. Buoyant and a bit playful -- at ease in his skin -- he's pausing between an appearance at the Doheny Heritage Music Festival in Dana Point and a touchdown in Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards. This afternoon, he's dressed casually in powder blue sweat pants with gold stripes and matching sneakers, all topped off with a Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles T-shirt. He has to be coaxed out of his ever-present bowler -- this one royal blue -- for a glimpse at the braid job. He concedes, but blushingly so.

He guesses that he and his group, the Family Band, have been on the road nearly 300 days a year in recent years. But since the Grammy showcase, he's crossed over from hemp-and-tie-dye jam-band land to a much more multiracial, multi-genre main room -- without an inch of compromise. Comedian and DJ Steve Harvey had him on his 100.3-FM morning show. Prince phoned to give him his props. So did Lenny Kravitz. Anita Baker coaxed him to Detroit to record. A deal was inked for him to open for Eric Clapton on tours here and abroad. He made the talk show rounds: Letterman, Leno, Conan. And he'll circle back to L.A. twice this summer to play the Hollywood Bowl, first for the Playboy Jazz Festival later this month and in August to open for Clapton.

"Last weekend I was in Jersey, and I played in church for the first time in a year. I just brought my stuff in. And they said, 'Good to see you.' " As if he hadn't missed a beat.

Dues paid in full

Randolph, with his openhearted grin, might seem to have sprung out of nowhere. But even at 25 he's earned his veteran stripes on a number of scenes -- within his church world's music ministry, on the jam-band circuit and on the downtown New York music scene. Whatever the setting, he cracks open a home-brewed, pulpit-and-pew-flavored mix he at one point termed "positive soul rock." But even that description, he now admits, doesn't sum up what he's after. Randolph has figured out how to merge the raucousness of church praise-song with ragged, screaming guitar peals that are the benchmark of rock 'n' roll -- and play it coolly and soulfully all the while.

He makes it no secret that, growing up in Morristown, N.J., he spent a fair amount of time running the streets, trying to keep his head on straight. "That whole area was bad. People selling drugs, beating people up. I was involved in some of it." But no matter what he was involved in, Randolph says, "I would always go back to church."

By the time he was 16, the pull between the streets and his faith heightened: "I was out of high school, friends dyin', I didn't have no job at the time, I didn't go to college. One of my friends got put in jail. I almost got put in jail ... " And though his parents were deeply involved in church -- his mother as a minister, his father a deacon -- there were frequent near-derailments. What kept him tethered to his faith, Randolph says, was his growing relationship with the pedal steel.

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