Randolph finds alternative to culture of rap


By Steve Morley

Robert Randolph: Colorblind
Label: Warner Brothers
Sound/Style: Funk-rock with soul and gospel elements 

The use of amplified steel guitar in worship was once only a little-known tradition in the Pentecostal-based House of God denomination.  

The instrument was first used in a Philadelphia church during the mid-1930s, with innovators like Willie Eason and Henry Nelson sparking a musical revolution that remained behind church doors. In the last decade, the "sacred steel" sound has gathered a head of steam.  

Enter Robert Randolph, a New Jersey House of God musician who sent the sanctified sound spilling into the streets by fusing it with rock and funk elements. Randolph, an African-American who hopes to offer black musicians an alternative to the often violent rap culture, has already established a presence among the ranks of star guitarists such as Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. 

Clapton's guest appearance on Randolph's latest CD, Colorblind, single-handedly validates the young musician's contribution to the pop mainstream. Their duet on the classic rock staple Jesus Is Just Alright proves that the sacred in "sacred steel" need not be entirely lost in translation. Interestingly, though, it's this secular hit song  that offers the most openly evangelical message on the disc.  

Elsewhere, Randolph's Pentecostal beginnings show up primarily in his unharnessed emotionalism. The concept of eternity seems oddly distant on Thrill of It, a song currently gaining Randolph and his band regular exposure on ABC's Saturday Night Primetime College Football. More than any other, this track sums up the immediacy inherent in this music of the moment and for the moment. 

Tracks like Blessed, Angels and a cover of Sly Stone's Thankful and Thoughtful are loosely built around faith concepts and provide a decidedly positive slant to the album. At times, though, the lyrics take an easy, slogan-like approach that seems more intent on good vibes than true spiritual discourse. Love is the Only Way, featuring Dave Matthews, is an especially hollow attempt at a post-hippie love anthem — big on idealism but light on concrete ideas. 

An exception is Deliver Me, a hard-driving shuffle that sounds like rocker Lenny Kravitz fronting '70s groovemeisters Parliament/Funkadelic. Randolph's vocal isn't always easy to make out, but here he seems to be addressing temptation and confessing his inability to conquer it in his own power. 

If Randolph's Christian roots don't always anchor the record, keep in mind that its message is secondary to his exciting, supercharged guitar work, which speaks an upbeat language of its own to a growing faction of fans. Randolph's goal here isn't so much to preach as it is to shatter preconceptions about the kinds of music that African-Americans can make. With Colorblind, Randolph and his Family Band make significant strides toward opening eyes and ears to new possibilities.