“I’m the only one who does what I do,” says Robert Randolph matter-of-factly, and anyone even only casually familiar with his music know he’s right. Now more than ten years famous following thee revelatory Live at the Wetlands, Randolph has turned heads by transforming the pedal steel guitar into a potent instrument rivaling the best conventional guitarists, and his dangerous Family Band are much more than props deployed around him.
Now ready to unleash his fifth album (and his first for the legend Blue Note label), Randolph as determined as ever to prove that success hadn’t diluted or moved him away from what he and only he does. Nope, Lickety Split is as raw, rambunctious and unrelentingly fun as he’s done on the prior four. Sounding as gritty, vigorous and soulful as the original Allman Brothers even more so than the current Allman Brothers, the Family Band is a true party band for those who want their party music hand made, rootsy and sincere.
They mean business, beginning with the rousing cheerleading of “Amped Up” which is tailor-made to bring crowds to their feet, and the live energy even oozes through on this studio product. The advance single “Born Again” proudly brandishes Randolph’s gospel credentials, something that shows up again on numbers like “Get Ready,” practically an invitation to dance in the pews.
What sets this band apart, however, isn’t their mastery of gospel, but their mastery of gospel, blues, rock, funk, country and R’n’B. When they blend it all together is when they really set themselves apart in another way aside from Randolph’s mighty pedal steel guitar. Take the title song “Lickety Split,” for example, where Randolph shares lead vocals with sister Lenesha Randolph. It’s a like a funky, blues-rock hoedown.
Lenesha also takes over most of lead vocals for “New Orleans,” where Robert’s dreamy pedal steel evokes Hawaii more than the Crescent City, but the laid back vibe he throws off is nonetheless a match for the laid back city. The very next track “Take The Party” reflects the festive side of NOLA, and this time, New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty joins the festivities, a meeting of musical soul mates.
Carlos Santana is the other guest appearance on the album, and he sounds as raw and rugged on “Brand New Wayo” as he’s been in decades. Randolph spends the song calling out Santana and his bassist Danyel Morgan to let it all hang out and play like, say, BB King or Stanley Clarke. I think Randolph forgot he wasn’t playing in front of a live audience, to the great benefit of his record listening audience.
As engaging as this record is already, it just wouldn’t feel enough like a live Randolph show if he and his crew didn’t dig into some spirit-lifting covers. The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” is done up just as funky as the original — ad libs and all — and what’s lost with the lack of a horn section is made up by Randolph adding grits to the groove. The Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” helps the party ends on a jubilant note, and a swampy, smoky pedal steel seals the deal.
All I get out of this album is that Robert Randolph & his Family Band are still willing to bust their asses to entertain you. Maybe nobody told them they hadn’t made the big time yet. If that’s the case, let’s keep it a secret from them, okay?
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Lickety Split goes on sale July 16, by Blue Note Records.
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