Robert Randolph & The Family Band

Why shouldn’t music have another Robert Johnson? Another Stevie Ray Vaughan? And who says he’s gotta play guitar, anyway?

Take all of the strings on Johnson’s and Vaughan’s guitars, add them up, and Robert Randolph can still play one more on his 13-string pedal steel guitar.

It’s no stretch to throw names around when comparing Randolph. Jimi Hendrix? His name has been used alongside Randolph’s without lightning striking.

“In the year 2000, when you think you’ve seen everything, it’s like, ‘Where the hell did this guy come from?'” manager Gary Waldman told POLLSTAR. “He grew up playing in church, never heard Duane Allman or Jimi Hendrix, but was playing with that same fire and authority. It was like he just landed on the planet.”

Randolph has a unique history for a 24-year-old. He learned his craft first hand from other pedal steel players like Calvin Cooke, but didn’t hear “Voodoo Chile” until somebody gave him a tape of the song

played by Vaughan. In fact, Randolph doesn’t think Hendrix is all that, but Vaughan? That tape changed his world.

“It’s as if he’s a dutiful pilgrim plucking the notes, one at a time, from God’s hands,” Tom Moon wrote of Randolph in Esquire. “The young man is singing on this thing, this guitar nailed to a board, coaxing out gems of feeling, summoning a spirit that has been missing from American music for what seems like ages. If you’re in this room at this moment, you want to weep in spite of yourself.”

Randolph is a descendent of the Sacred Steel – the music, instrument and elan of the House of God Pentecostal ministry. Instead of guitar or piano, the pedal steel became the instrument of choice for the denomination in the 1930s when, according to The New York Times, two brothers from Georgia, Willie and Truman Eason, took up the strange guitar. Truman brought the pedal steel to the House of God, which now spans a dozen states and Jamaica.

Randolph’s great-grandfather was a pastor at the House of God in Orange, N.J., and the musician has attended church there his whole life. His father is a deacon and his mother is a minister. His grandparents are pastors and bishops.

He has been playing pedal steel in the church since he was 17 years old. Like a blues legend, there was a time when he couldn’t play at all. When a friend was shot to death on the streets of his hometown of Irvington, Randolph disappeared into his room, sat down at the steel and immediately composed a song called “The Prayer.”

He practiced five hours a day and avoided the streets. Yet, although he came from a musical family, his father said the kid was awful. He sent Randolph to visit his own father-in- law in Ohio, who played the steel. When the kid came back, he blew everybody away.

Some in the parish initially questioned his move into secular clubs three years ago. The show is fun in a New Orleans Mardi Gras sort of way, but there were some detractors who thought it was music for the church, not the smoke-filled, liquor-pouring clubs.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band

And because he learned his music in an unconventional way, it’s hard to classify. But he and the Family Band (which includes cousins Marcus on drums and the phenomenal Danyel on bass and vocals) have made a surprisingly quick climb to headline status.

“That’s what a lot of people have said,” Randolph told POLLSTAR. “Hopefully it’s an example of people wanting something positive and good in their life, and different. The band’s not something that’s being imitated from something else. That’s what people want and that’s what we’ve been giving them.”

Waldman booked the band’s first gig outside the House of God at New York’s Lakeside Lounge on September 26, 2000. Three days later, the band was playing the Bowery Ballroom.

A month later, it had a residency at the Mercury Lounge.

Soon, Frank Riley, while still at Monterey Peninsula Artists, sent a letter. “Let me make this clear: I’m in.” He sent the band out to open for other acts.

“The problem was,” Randolph said, “we had to bite the bullet. A lot of bands didn’t want us to open for them so we’d get on the bus or get in the van and go to South Carolina or Georgia and see who’d show up.”

Those who were not intimidated by Robert Randolph & The Family Band have included John Mayer and Dave Matthews Band. After opening for DMB, Randolph joined the band for a couple of songs; Matthews said Randolph was the best musician he had ever played with.

Waldman confirmed that, to this day, the band has never practiced. They’ve blown away the younger crowds, the older, Eric Clapton set and festival-goers in Australia who had never heard of them.

“At this point I’m like, ‘You can’t lose with these guys,'” Waldman said.

Like others, co-manager Jim Markel met Randolph by writing a story on him. The musician played a two-day convention featuring the Sacred Steel in Florida. Markel was freelancing at the time for No Depression and eventually introduced Randolph to his friend Waldman.

“Honestly, that’s one of the most fun things about this job,” he told POLLSTAR.

“Having written, you see things in the context of a story. And this always struck me as such a great story. In a lot of ways, an artist like Robert is a throwback to Muddy Waters or somebody who was found, but in modern times – coming out of nowhere and playing like nobody.”