The Word [Robert Randolph, John Medeski + North Mississippi All-Stars], “When I See the Blood” from Soul Food (2015)

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The Word is still throwing everything in a pot, and still coming up with tastes that surprise and delight. It starts, of course, with Robert Randolph’s bluesy steel guitar — two things that had seldom collided before in modern music. Then there’s John Medeski, the free-spirited jazz keyboardist. And that trio of next-gen blues rockers North Mississippi All-Stars, Luther and Cody Duckinson as well as Chris Chew. And, finally, the deeply soulful guest vocalist Ruthie Foster.

Oh, and a gospel-flecked tune. Wait, what?

“When I See the Blood,” the first track from their forthcoming second collaboration as the Word, sounds — at least on paper — like a recipe for disaster. But as with those everything-in soups that gird many a Deep South diet, it all ends up working after a long slow boil. Due May 5, 2015 via Vanguard Records as part of Soul Food, the brilliantly complex, yet strikingly emotional “When I See the Blood” sets a new standard for improv gospel-jazz country blues supergroups.

Because, yeah, they’re the only one.

Recording at Willie Mitchell’s legendary Royal Studio in Memphis (where Al Green, Chuck Berry and, more recently, Paul Rodgers have laid down a series of head-wagging sides), “When I See the Blood” finally makes good on a promisingly offbeat debut recording from the Word that dates all the way to 2001.

Back then, Robert Randolph was just emerging as the rightful heir to the now-forgotten folkways highlighted in the 1998 Arhoolie collection Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida. Now, he’s a bonafide star in his own right, and that probably accounts in part for the long layover.

Still, the Word has lost none of its head-scratching, soul-lifting ability to amaze, as heard on “When I See the Blood” with its savory roux of swooning steel, gurgling organ and soaring guitar. A pew-rattling, Mavis Staples-style vocal turn by Ruthie Foster just completes this tasty, utterly indescribable gumbo.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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