String-slinger takes two steps forward, one step back
Sacred steel maestro Robert Randolph seems destined to play a big tent. With his scorching virtuosity and a devotional background (the Pentecostal church supplied his earliest musical influences) his cross-platfrom appeal makes him equally suitable for Bonnaroo, blues fests and SportsCenter promos; recent years have seen him burning off Hendrix covers with the Roots as comfortably as he opened for B.B. King.
In the past, Randolph used his fire-and-brimstone upbringing and diagnosably insane guitar skills to ignite bonfires; signature tracks like “Going in the Right Direction” and “I Need More Love” from his 2003 debut Unclassified were blues-based bangers designed to elicit some combination of rafter-rattling and the saving of a decent volume of souls. But that’s not the case with We Walk This Road, Randolph’s first album in four years, on which he and his Family Band ease back on the throttle for a more restrained version of their Sly Stone/Stevie Ray Vaughan blues-gospel-funk fusion.
The restraint is probably due to the guiding hand of producer T Bone Burnett, who is pretty good at this sort of thing. Randolph’s noise is still joyful, of course—it’s just a simmer when it used to be an inferno. But that’s purely by design; Road has quite a few new goals in mind. It’s framed as a modern repurposing of African-American music drawn from all corners of the past century. It was recorded over two years and shaped by what Randolph has said were listening sessions to archival, sometimes public-domain, compositions. (He claims to have dropped $5,000 on iTunes while digging through long-lost songs and newer influences—someone send the man a free mouse pad!) It’s punctuated by “segues,” brief samples of Blind Willie Johnson songs and old gospel numbers. The album seems designed to breathe life into a few dusty corners of Americana, a la Bruce Springsteen’s folk-meets-New-Orleans-revival Seeger Sessions project, but it’s also distinctly modern; Randolph includes pointed, tropical covers of tracks by Christian Bob Dylan, angry John Lennon and Diamonds and Pearls-era Prince.
As if overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, We Walk This Road starts off not with a big, Randolphian bang (2006’s Colorblind, for instance, opened with “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” which sported a jump-ball whistle and pavement-rattling second-line stomp) but a meandering whimper. The first four tracks are oddly slow to come to life. Although “Traveling Shoes” sounds like it could burn the varnish off of stages this summer, this studio version comes off plastic-wrapped. The midtempo R&B number “Back to the Wall” struggles to take off, a well-intentioned but rambling cover of Dylan’s “Shot Of Love” (featuring Jim Keltner, who drummed on the original) drifts and “I Still Belong to Jesus” edges too close to ‘70s AM territory.
Happily, something clicks about midway through the LP—the back two-thirds finally match Randolph’s historical and spiritual aspirations, with songs and arrangements of a much greater insistence. A soaring cover of Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk” kills (it’s nearly impossible to botch the song, but still); the Lennon cover “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” finds the perfect temperature and the Ben Harper-assisted rave-up “If I Had My Way” is a firey blast of swamp-gospel. Randolph lands the record with the great dark-gospel “Dry Bones,” a creepy winner propelled by a keys-jangling backbeat, and “Salvation,” a lovely coda.
Burnett’s production is well-intentioned, but the vibe is a little too restrained, the burn a little too controlled. Burnett stuffs Randolph’s guitar work in the back (the sticks-on-wood percussion of “Back to the Wall” gets more sonic love than Randolph’s outro solo does), as if to accentuate the songcraft rather than the frontman’s virtuosity. That may make sense, given the record’s historical framework. But it’s hard not to want to hear these songs on the road, where it’ll be wise to take a step back and give Randolph some room to preach.