Not a lot of folks have soul. We're not talking about the spiritual half of dualist existentialism, but that intangible momentum that spews from every pore of those select few whose art brings out the best of their natural being.
Robert Randolph absolutely reeks of soul.
The son of a deacon father and a minister mother, Randolph honed his savant-like steel guitar skills in front of the congregation at the House of God, an African American Pentecostal church in Orange, N.J. as part of the church's tradition of musical services.
"Playing in church, you get rid of that whole star-struck thing or "I'm a star' or whatever," Randolph says. "You realize that you're not doing it to please yourself, you're doing it to please God, you know what I mean? And that's what it's all about. You're not doing it to please man."
But please man he does. What the 24-year-old began as a quest to reach a higher power through music has won over a sizeable following of mortals in just a few years. His current act, Robert Randolph and the Family Band (aptly named, as his cousins, Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph play bass and drums, respectively), has slowly but surely packed dive bars and blues clubs from L.A. to the Carolinas through strong word-of-mouth and soul-shaking live shows.
"Now we're selling 2,000 tickets in probably every major city in the U.S.," Randolph beams. "New York, Chicago, Detroit, anywhere in the South-it's great, man. Fans are really latching on to the music."
The music in question is based on the "sacred steel" tradition of Pentecostal church music. Created with a 13-string pedal steel guitar, uplifting lyrics and gospel jam sessions, Randolph's shows have become a breeding ground for positive vibes. Inspired by other sacred steel players like Ted Beard, Glenn Lee and Buddy Boy Snelling, Randolph has seldom been without his instrument of choice.
At the age of 15 he picked up his first steel guitar and was immediately consumed with his new hobby. Growing up amidst street crime and poverty in urban New Jersey, his surroundings would have made it easy to slip through the cracks and become like every other sticky-fingered Jersey street rat. But not being one to waste a true emotional outlet, Randolph used his environment to his advantage.
"To tell you the truth, it gives me a whole lot to sing about and a whole lot to play about now, because I look from where I came and playing and all of the things that I've done. I was kind of a bad kid," he explains.
"I spent hours and hours a day practicing, you know. We're talking six, seven hours [per day]-easy. I always had planned on maybe going outside and playing with some of my buddies and going out and hanging out, and the next thing you know it's three in the morning and I'd been sitting there since 6:30."
Even though the days of hanging out in the bedroom are all but gone-the band spends most of their time on the road-Randolph has managed to make friends in bigger places. When they opened for Dave Matthews at Madison Square Garden, Matthews boasted that Randolph and fams are "the baddest band in the world." A month after opening a show for the North Mississippi All-Stars, he-along with John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood-cut a gospel-tinged record with the All-Stars entitled The Word . The album unexpectedly became one of 2001's most talked about instrumental releases.
Randolph's own Live at the Wetlands album has started to slowly pick up in sales. With a growing number of fans willing to follow their steely frontman to the ends of the earth, Randolph still gives props to the big Gee Oh Dee for giving him the strength to escape a social situation that would have kicked the spirit of lesser humans to the curb.
"I look at all those things that happened around me-kids dying, people going to jail "" and I thank God that I had this instrument to play."