Tag Archives: pedal steel
February 23, 2013
We’re all told to respect our elders, to learn from the generation before and to pass along tradition. Wise words musically speaking, and fundamental to any jazz or blues playbook where family legacies span generations and old sounds are regularly rediscovered and reimagined.
Now, I hail from about as far from a Pentecostal upbringing as one would expect for a ‘60s kid raised in the relative comfort of a West Los Angeles lifestyle. But when I heard Robert Randolph for the first time, I was floored. I had no clue about the roots of Sacred Steel in the church tradition, but the Hendrix like intensity he brought to the pedal steel was pretty religious in my book and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Randolph’s latest project, the Slide Brothers, pays homage to those roots. Randolph has brought together the “greatest living musicians who embody the Sacred Steel tradition” (as described on the Slide Brothers’ web site), a tradition that dates to Depression era times where steel/slide guitar and vocal melodies were all but interchangeable in church music. Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent are the Slide Brothers – a direct legacy to a musical tradition rarely heard beyond church walls. Randolph, himself a son of a deacon and a minister, saw to it that the world gets to hear these guys with the release of the self-titled debut studio album and this current tour (with dates in California and Nevada). I hadn’t heard any of the album before the show, but the mix of material from the Allman Brothers and George Harrison to more traditional spirituals sounded awfully good to me.
The Slide Brothers (with Carlton Campbell on drums and Randolph regular Ray Holloman on bass, but without Darick Campbell) got into position with the pedal steels of Randolph and Chuck Campbell bookending Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent, who played their lap steels on stands (Cooke plays the same instrument his mother bought for him to this day). That’s a whole lot of strings on stage and anticipation of their confluence was obvious. Not something you are going to hear or see, well, err, almost ever.
The set was way more blues rowdy than pew churchy, and shifted into high gear early. Many Sacred Steel players start as drummers, and the percussive gallop of a trap kit boogied easily on the Brothers strings. I also finally got how the steel guitar voice can stand in for so many others and I swear I heard sax, harp and vocal (especially low strings for baritone) lines at many points. The set generously focused on the debut album including the Elmore James staple, “The Sky is Crying”, and the Brothers really tore into the ZZ Top like stomp of “Help Me Make It Through” with Calvin Cooke sharing some life perspective along the way. But with Randolph’s thwacka-thwacka intro to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” the place took off and the power Randolph and the Brothers brought to the tune was magnified many times over to cyclone like intensity (no surprise that the band was featured as part of the Hendrix Experience tribute tour last year and, as I just learned, the new album is produced by Eddie Kramer, who twisted knobs on some of Hendrix’s most famous recordings). By the end of the set, the audience was on its feet with hands up high and a distinct Sunday morning feel in the air. Randolph switched to his Tele (as he did earlier in the set), and as the band left the stage, he kept going from the wings (and of course, circled back with all of the band to close it out). The Slide Brothers encored with a stirring cover of the Allman’s “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” (ironic for me, hearing Greg Allman do his tune in the same room last month) and the oft-covered classic “It Hurts Me Too”.
While at times it was difficult to sort out the solos from seated players on a slightly elevated stage, the sound of so much grit and slide, sweet and burn, all mashed together with such intuition was stunning. It must really be something for Randolph to share the stage with the progenitors of Sacred Steel he so revered as a young musician.
The roots of the Slide Brothers are largely non-secular, but they are making music for everybody to hear and celebrate. That is worth praising whatever your beliefs.
The Otis Taylor Band opened the show underway with their unique style of “trance blues”. Taylor, who spent many years away from recording until 1996, just released his 13th album, “My World is Gone” on Concord Music. Their set was moody and meditatively jammy, yet didn’t peg with anything rote or traditional. This was not a push/pull, light/dark blues take, but much more of an ebb and flow that was entirely captivating (of course, he did manage to throw “Hey, Joe” in there, too). The Taylor Band includes Anne Harris on fiddle, Shawn Starski on guitar, Todd Edmunds on bass and Larry Thompson on drums. Harris’ lively stage presence, and slippery-fiery playing (with no doubt some serious classical background) thoroughly enriched the set. Props to UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) for pairing the Otis Taylor Band with the Slide Brothers.
September, 11, 2012
Jazzfest’s surprise moments can happen any time. One of mine came this year when The Revivalists kicked off the Fest from the Gentilly stage before noon on the opening Friday. While the band has played the Fest the past few years, I was in the dark until that set. Familiar to many native Orleaneans and carving a broader audience through touring in support of acts such as Dr. John, Trombone Shorty and Galactic (and in the next few weeks, Gov’t. Mule), their Fest set was passionate, captivating, and raised the bar early for one of the better Fests ever. Led by guitarist/vocalist David Shaw, the band puts Ed Williams blazing pedal steel right up front with horns, keys and a committed rhythm section to deliver what the esteemed David Fricke dubbed “a Crescent City-rhythm spin on jam-band jubilee”. To my ear, this is soul-jam influenced rock from New Orleans, with the New Orleans influences taking more of a back seat to driving and occasionally chimey guitars, Shaw’s growl and an undeniable we came to play stage presence (Shaw’s off stage forays and Williams overtopping his pedal steel were sweet spot material for this photographer).
The Revivalists found each other in 2007 and have three CDs under their belt – their eponymous debut EP from 2008, 2010’s “Vital Signs” and this year’s “City of Sound”, which was produced by Ben Ellman of Galactic and mixed by Count (aka, Michael Eldridge), who’s worked with the Stones, Radiohead, Pink, No Doubt, as well as Galactic and Trombone Shorty. Their Mint date is part of a September swing through California and Nevada and I was curious how their Gentilly size presence would fit the room.
The small, but devoted, Tuesday night crowd grew in size and enthusiasm as the band worked its way through a deep 80-minute set. Opening with Zack Feinberg’s ES-335 fueled riffs on “Concrete (Fish Out of Water)” from 2008’s “The Revivalists”, the tune caught fire right away. Ed Williams’ sacred steel wasted no time meshing and mashing with Shaw and Feinberg’s twin guitars. “All in the Family” and “Monster” are new tunes, the former bringing a stomping, rapped up rhythm to a chorus of “I’ve got that feeling in my bones”, and whether playing to a living room or thousands, David Shaw sells that line true. Steel on top of blues driven funk just brings it home. “Monster” is a softer tune built around Shaw’s vocals, Feinberg’s waterfall runs and Rob Ingraham’s sax, and an appropriate lead in to “Not Turn Away” from “Vital Signs” with its shuffle step plea of “I hope that you were listening/when I said that you could be the only one”.
The ghostly, “Pretty Photograph” from “City of Sound,” sounds nothing like New Orleans and was one of best tunes of the night, blending Williams sweet turn up top with Rob Ingraham’s baritone below. The punchy “Common Cents” from “The Revivalists”, and “When I’m Able”, “Up in the Air” and “When I Die” from “City of Sound” followed. “Up in the Air’s” catch up phrasing landing squarely on the chorus and building to a satisfying finish under Zack Feinberg’s uncolored gallop. By this point in the set, tables gave way to the dance floor and a 40ish dude leading the pack made a point of telling me he drove 3 hours to catch the gig. “Let It All Out” was another new tune that bounced between a ragey bridge and more ballady chorus and fell a little short of other tunes. The rest of the set included the reggae lilt of “Sunny Days” from “The Revivalists”, “Catching Fireflies” from “Vital Signs”, and “Criminal” the obvious closer from “City of Sound”. “Criminal” brings many of the band’s best elements together, tearing up the Fest and capping off this night at The Mint nicely.
I caught up with Rob Ingraham after the show for some set forensics. No set lists, just shout outs from the stage. Wouldn’t have known it as it all hung together rather well.
There is romance in the Revivalists sound. Songs feel like love close, beaten or out of reach. Delivered with inspiration and perspiration and a New Orleans heartbeat. A band that also knows where it’s going and determined to get there. I’d count on it.
From the Revivalists passionate opening Gentilly set to the final moments of Springsteen’s plaintive reading of Saints, the first weekend of Jazzfest 2012 was an abundance of special moments. Yes, the draws were the Acura headliners. Petty and Bruce delivered deep satisfying sets (from what I was able to catch), and Springsteen’s presence was a rallying cry of celebration and reflection. A reminder of how New Orleans has healed since his epic 2006 post-Katrina Seeger Sessions appearance, and how far there is still to go. Even the Beach Boys brought their game, judging by the smiles and sing alongs from a nice size Acura crowd. But, hey, did you check out Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 at Congo Square? The four generations of players from 9 to 90+ that filled the Fais Do Do on Saturday for the Savoy Music Center Cajun Jam? How about Bon Iver’s stirring (and unexpected) connection with the Jazzfest crowd? Gary Clark, Jr. absolutely tearing down the Blues Tent opposite the Boss with Texas blues that left teeth marks? Not to mention the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars and Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen showing Tom Petty how it’s done in New Orleans. Sure until self-cloning is an app, we all pang for what we missed. Weekend 1 proved, yet again, no matter where you are at the Fest, it’s exactly where you should be.
The days between were not too shabby. Instruments A’ Comin’ on Monday night at Tip’s and New Orleans Musicians for Obama at Generations Hall on Tuesday had my head spinning (in a good way). IAC was loaded this year, as always. The sight/sounds of the best young brass in town marching along a closed Napoleon Ave. is breathtaking, and Shorty, Galactic, HISB and a cast of thousands made for a very satisfying 4:30 AM bedtime. Tuesday night’s “ObamaFest” had some unfortunate ticketing glitches, but once inside Generations Hall, there was a little bit of everything with two stages, multiple bars and a great relaxed vibe. The mostly Meters mini-set with Dr. John was locked in and tight, the highlight of the night by far.
The second weekend of the Fest boasted one of the richest lineups in year. While the Foos and the Eagles were not in the cards for me (my closest encounter was fighting the 65,000 Eagles fans for the exit), the Gentilly Stage and the Blues Tent pulled me like magnets. Thursday can never be a bad day. The crowds are lighter and headliners undemanding. It’s easy to roam, chill and eat. Like a bonus day. Flow Tribe completely entertained, Glen Hansaard sang/played his heart out with a 6-string that makes Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” look new. Honey Island Swamp Band’s “Bayou Americana” keeps getting better. George Porter, Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners were totally in the groove. Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread was magical and Florence Welch had me completely under her spell. Only at Jazzfest could Florence + the Machine be counterpointed with the earthy grit of James Cotton’s blowing in the Blues Tent. If that’s a down day at the Fest, give me more.
Friday was a highlight. Grace Potter’s scorching stage presence was topped by the Nocturnals go for broke delivery. Hornsby’s long overdue Fest debut was juicy and this Bruce was loving every minute of it, especially when joined by dem ‘bones. Rodrigo y Gabriela’s metal rooted world nylon string mash up was mesmerizing. Zac Brown showed why he is a festival circuit favorite, and so much more than a solid country rock comer.
Saturday brought a rollicking (and rocking tight) Allen Toussaint set. Anders Osborne, fresh from the release of “Black Eye Galaxy” dug deep and raw, then vulnerable. Dropping the guitar and backed by strings, “Higher Ground” was simply beautiful. John Boutte brought the house down with a triumphant Jazz Tent performance and running between My Morning Jacket, Herbie Hancock and the Warren Haynes Band (with Dr. John) sums up why there is nothing like Jazzfest. The Haynes Band especially shined in the slot originally scheduled for Levon Helm. Levon’s spirit was all over the Fest, whether it was Hornsby covering “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or Mavis Staples bringing the crowd to tears in the Gospel Tent with “The Weight”.
By the time Sunday rolls around, you tell yourself the tank is more than half full, not running down fast. You believe the flight home is just a scheduling mistake, rather than a cruel joke. Then Galactic overpowers the Acura crowd. Glen David Andrews brings out that red horn and everyone rises a few inches off the ground. You go to church with the entire Boutte clan. David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco seize the Jazz Tent crowd before the final coming together to honor 50 years of Preservation Hall, with guests that celebrate all that is New Orleans music. Go shake it with Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings before the reality sets in that there are only 355 more sleeps to Jazzfest 2013. Now that’s a life. Thank you Quint and every human who make Jazzfest possible.