Very few musicians exhibit a purely energetic approach while also being completely in tune like Robert Randolph can while he’s performing. This way of making music with a pedal steel can often get the audience moving and grooving with the rest of the band upping the rhythms and beats. It’s why he’s one of the best live acts on the planet and folks around Connecticut will get to see it for themselves this Saturday night. Randolph and his new backing band are going to be rolling through Mohegan Sun in Uncasville to perform at the Wolf Den. It all starts at 8pm and it’s also free admission.
Randolph and I talked ahead of the show about how he got into playing the pedal steel through his local church, the new band that he’s been playing with, performing on stage versus recording in the studio and working on a new album.
RD: When you first started getting into music, what made you want to start playing pedal steel? It’s a very unique instrument in how it combines the guitar and keyboard together in terms of overall structure.
RR: I grew up in my church, which is known for a tradition called “sacred steel”. It was always the main instrument in my church, so my parents, grandparents and myself all grew up watching all of my sort of musical ancestors playing the pedal steel in the “sacred steel” way. I just wanted to really learn how to play it and be like them when I was growing up.
RD: Speaking of that church, it’s the House Of God Church in your hometown of Orange, New Jersey. How much of an effect would you say that place had on you during your formative years as a musician and as who you are today as an adult?
RR: It’s very much a part of who I still am today. One thing about my church or anybody’s faith or religion is that it’s really about uplifting people and bringing people together. Musically, our church is a very pentecostal, upbeat, gospel style church. The more and more I started listening more to secular stuff like the Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter and a lot of others, the more I realized how similar my music was to some of these other cats that I listened to in church. It’s really that upbeat sound being able to uplift, drive and inspire everyone to keep it going, so that was sort of the mission of it all.
RD: It sounds like it had a very positive effect on you. These days, your band just goes by the Robert Randolph Band instead of Robert Randolph & The Family Band, which has been used for over 20 years. What inspired this change? Is it just a shifting in membership or are there other reasons?
RR: It’s not The Family Band anymore, it’s a completely different band. These are guys that I’ve met over the years, the guitar player is Tash Neal who used to be in The London Souls and the bass player is Jay White, who is the brother of the great organ player Cory Henry, and we just did it. Since the pandemic, some of the guys in the other band had to step away from music due to health reasons and other reasons.
RD: That makes sense. When it comes to what Tash and Jay bring into the fold as musicians, what makes this band you’re in right now different from The Family Band in terms of arrangements or just overall vibe?
RR: I would say that it’s more rock & roll. It’s just a different take on what I do and they bring a lot of different elements of funk, Tash’s guitar playing is really more rock & roll than anything else. He has a bluesy approach and he’s more wild, even wilder than I am, which is really exciting. We’re actually in the process of recording a new album and these are the most songs that I’ve written during the making of any record. We have over 40 songs that we’re trying to whittle down to the best 12 and even so, we’re going to have other material to release while being able to have a lot of collaborations with a lot of different artists and a lot of people I’ve been speaking to.
From the recording standpoint, being able to collaborate with some people, show up at some festivals and other things while creating all of these different live opportunities with these guys is really exciting right now.
RD: It definitely sounds like it. You’ve been heralded for your energetic and engaging live performances, so is there any major difference between how you perform on stage versus performing in a studio or a rehearsal space? I know one of the things that bands and musicians always try to do while making a record is putting their live energy into it, which can be hard to pull off.
RR: The thing about me, it’s somewhat funny because any of the musicians that know me and have played with me a few times will tell you that performing live is always different. Every version of whatever song we play is always different, it’s always been like that for me. Some of the guys will joke about how we’ll always do a 70 percent rehearsal because it’s kind of like here’s how it starts, here’s how it goes and maybe it ends this way but maybe it doesn’t. It stays open, so when it’s live it’s always going to be different than what we recorded. I’ll always believe that the power of live music always brings about a new day or a new experience.
It’s almost like if you listen to any Jimi Hendrix live recording. Every single one of them is different as well as many other people like Stevie Wonder or bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers. There’s the Grateful Dead, of course. Those are the things that sort of really inspire me live, it’s great to go into the studio, record a song and have it be the greatest possible version of the recording, but as you get six months or a year down to road and you start collaborating, you start touring, the crowd gets hyped and different things happen.
RD: You always want to leave room for improvisation.
RR: Yeah, absolutely.
RD: You just talked about this new album that you’ve been working on, so what can we expect from it? Is there a release date set yet? Are there any details you can mention without giving too much away?
RR: We don’t have a release date yet. We’ve been working with Shooter Jennings on it, he’s been co-producing a bunch of stuff with another guy named Joe Chiccarelli. It’s going to be an exciting, great record with a lot of great songs and great riffs. I think it’ll be my best record yet so it’s going to be really cool.