Robert Randolph has ushered the Sacred steel tradition into the mainstream through his work with his Family Band and continues his work to introduce this tradition by lending his name and cameo to a new album from The Slide Brothers on Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers.
The "Brothers" -- Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell -- are an ad hoc family connected through the tradition of using lap steel guitar in church services through The Church of God. They now perform together and on this album bring their exceptional playing talents to the music of The Allman Brothers, George Harrison, Elmore James, traditional worship songs, and a mindblowing re-imagining of the 1999 hit "Praise You" by Fatboy Slim with vocal assistance from the great Shemekia Copeland. The brothers trade lead vocals and are joined by guest singers like Copeland, Jimmy Carter, Drew Ramsey, and Shannon Sanders and get rhythmic backing from Randolph's Family Band (Randolph also guests) as well as other studio performers.
We must begin with "Praise You" as I simply couldn't believe my ears when the CD got to this track. I remember loathing that song when it came out and it was everywhere. I still remember Chris Rock's appraisal of Slim's performance at the MTV Music Awards: "Fatboy Slim? Looks like 'White Boy Retarded.'" Every day I see people around me polishing turds and getting nowhere; it never occurred to me it was possible to take something that bad and make it wonderful but The Slide Brothers and the great Shemekia Copeland turned an unlistenable piece of rubbish into something spiritual, beautiful, exultant, and uplifting. Copeland's gospel-soaked vocals soar and Robert and Marcus Randolph set the world ablaze with their passionate playing. It is raucous, spiritual, and rockin'. Play it loud, give yourself over to it. You won't sit still so make sure no one is watching if you listen while sitting in your cube at work (don't ask). You have to hear this version and experience the completely different feelings and approaches to the exact same song.
The approach is different but it makes sense for The Slide Brothers to tackle an Allman Brother Band song as the late Duane Allman is one of the most important, influential slide players in the rock era. "Don't Keep Me Wondering" is recognizable as it passes from the Allman Brothers to The Slide Brothers, although this arrangement boasts a harder, funkier rhythm and a different style of organ work from what Gregg contributed on the original. The Campbells swirl steel solos simultaneously, weaving them around each other in competition and complement.
The Harrison-penned "My Sweet Lord" took a wide view of religions and the concepts of God but Jimmy Carter's guest vocal and the Slide Brothers arrangement makes this a far more Gospel-centric moment of worship. Aubrey Ghent and Carter exchange a call-and-response moment in the song's bridge, the type of thing that happens in the tradition of the church that binds these men to God above and one another. Regardless of one's spiritual perspective, the fervent devotion these men feel is inspiring to witness. I think Harrison would have approved.
Bassist Orlando Wright plays on several tracks and provides some pummeling thunder, particularly in the intro to "Sunday School Blues" and throughout the instrumental arrangement of "Wade In The Water." The latter gives the Campbell men a chance to trade searing licks while remaining rooted in the song. "It Hurts Me Too" is often played as a ballad but The Slide Brothers put a bit of spit and swagger in their approach. They may feel the hurt but they don't let it drag them down. It's redundant to remind you how good the slide playing is on every track but it has to be said. "Catch That Train" is a start-stop, call-and-response spiritual with some great harmonizing between Ghent and and Cooke. "Motherless Children" was popularized by Eric Clapton in the '70s but I daresay The Brothers exceed his memorable performance.
Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying" -- also famously covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan -- and "There Are No Cheap Seats In Heaven" close the album, both punctuated by superior slide playing and the boundless enthusiasm. The Slide Brothers follow Robert Randolph through the door he kicked down to bring this style of music to a wider audience. The sound of spirit is alive on this record and that is a rare and wonderful thing to behold.