Robert Randolph & TFB – We Walk This Road

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I’m anxiously awaiting the video release of the third Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival, which was held this June.  The previous two were great viewing for music enthusiasts, with a good variety of artists both well and lesser known.  One of the “I only recognize the name” artists was Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who play blues related songs, often with gospel elements but the ability to go wherever they want.   Visually, Randolph attracts Robert Randolph in Torontoattention as he rips his solos on pedal steel “guitar,” an instrument more often associated with country music.  But on stage with the more traditional body and neck virtuosos, he held his own.

We Walk This Road is his fourth CD.  I haven’t listened to his earlier work, but I understand that they had a more religious focus, as Randolph’s musical background came from playing “sacred steel” in his Pentecostal faith.   It’s clear that Randolph is seeking to translate not only his past to his current art.  The liner notes indicate that “this record is a celebration of African-American music over the past one hundred years and its social messages from the last thirty.”  Lofty stuff.

That may be the purpose, but it might have been a stronger statement had the social angle also reflected African American thought.   John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna be a Soldier Mama” likely hit a social nerve when it was released in 1971, and it’s topical any time when our military forces operate under the weight of policy doubts.  Still, that does not mean that the song is blessed with a tune worth repeating, regardless of how it’s dressed.   Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love” fares somewhat better (though Dylan purists are likely to disagree) due to Randolph’s powering slide attacks, but still, it’s Dylan, and it doesn’t reflect either of his two stated purposes. 

Despite an apparent intent to cast a wider net than his spiritually dominated back catalogue, the album is at its best when it echoes America’s spiritual traditions.  Ben Harper, another artist prone to tackle gospel rock, guests on “If I Had My Way,” a peppy reworking of a Blind Willie Johnson song.   “I Still Belong to Jesus” is straightforward on its subject matter, but it also has joy in the singing and performance.  Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk” isn’t a spiritual song, but musically it’s treated as if it was with a choir draping the background.  My favorite, though, is the reworking of “Dry Bones,” a welcome reminder that religious songs can be fun. 

This is a solid CD for those who are interested in blues, pedal steel, or a spiritual lift outside of the boundaries of saccharine Christian radio.  That said, there’s several songs that are as easily skipped to get to the notably better content, and the frequently touted T. Bone Burnett’s production seems to leave the pedal steel a notch or two low in the mix for my tastes.  In concert, though, many of these songs are likely to shine brightly.

Recommended Songs: “Dry Bones,” “If I Had My Way,” “I Still Belong to Jesus”

3 of 5 STARS

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