Robert Randolph and the Family Band first appeared in Tulsa, at the Cain's Ballroom, nearly three years ago just when the band was bursting into the mainstream on the heels of releasing its first studio album, Unclassified.
Anyone who was in attendance can testify that the show was a near-spiritual event. Part church service, part dance party, part rock concert, Randolph and his band exploded on stage in an inspiring burst of rock, soul, blues and gospel that kept the crowd entranced for nearly two and a half hours.
I'd never experienced Randolph live before that night, so for all I know, it could have been just another show for him and the band, but it sure felt magical- as if they were cutting loose and letting everything out so they could refocus their efforts the next night as an opening act for guitar legend Eric Clapton.
Although the group had already won over hoards of jam-band fans, the Clapton tour promised to expose them to a whole next crowd and take them to the next level.
Perhaps that is also symbolic of the way the band has developed in the time since that last visit. Yes, Randolph and company have broadened their horizons and added mightily to their fan base. During that period they've become more focused and direct in their performance and songwriting, but they've done so without losing touch with their original fans or sound.
Unclassified was a good album, but in many places it found the band in a jam-band mentality, indulging in extended solos and leaving the music wide open for improvisation. With the latest CD, Colorblind, the Family Band is still spreading the same message and celebratory spirit, only this time everything is much more single-minded and concise - from the playing to the arrangements and lyrical structure.
Extended time on the road with artists like Clapton and Dave Matthews definitely contributed to the band's growth as Randolph learned from his peers and made a specific effort to concentrate even more on the songs for the new album.
Even though Randolph has been inspired and encouraged by friends and colleagues within the industry, however, he hasn't strayed too incredibly far from his gospel roots. Robert collaborated with Clapton on a number of different pieces, some of which may or may not show up on a future Clapton album, but the song that ultimately ended up on the new record is version of "Jesus is Just Alright" in which Clapton and Randolph trade fiery licks.
Another song on the album, "Love is the Only Way", was written by buddy Dave Matthews. "Dave had already written most of the song for his band, but I guess he wasn't happy with how it sounded" says Robert. "So he brought it to me and said he thought it would fit what we were doing." The final version even features an appearance by Matthews, along with DMB member Leroi Moore and trumpet player Rashawn Ross.
"It's got a great gospel vibe" says Randolph. "It was just what we were looking for -- we wanted it (the album) to be a celebration."
"Celebration" is a word that comes up frequently when discussing the band's music with Robert, and it only seems appropriate if you've seen the band live or listened to the CD's. Whether it's in the funky stomp and rock of "Ain't Nothing Wrong with That" and "Deliver Me" on Colorblind or the raise-the-roof gospel soul and blues of "Going in the Right Direction" or "Nobody" on Unclassified, that celebratory spirit is key to the Family Band sound.
That's what sets this band apart from the others: Robert and the group are undeniably a rock band, but they still retain the fundamental elements of gospel, soul and funk in their music. As a result, the overall feel and vibe draws listeners in, especially in concert where the party can become as much revival meeting as rock show.
"That's what we really try to do," says Randolph. "We try to draw people into it, to celebrate life and music."
When asked if he found it ironic that the group was initially embraced by the jam-band crowd after coming out of the House of God church in Orange, New Jersey, Robert's answer is: "No, not really. I just always wanted to go out and spread my background and music vision."
Of that vision, Robert says "I want to give kids a sense that rock'n'roll is still alive and can be something original and creative - especially kids that are (primarily) exposed to rap and R&B."
"I like to do music that sounds cool and hip, but still says something to people", he continues. "You don't have to preach too much, but you can still have a positive message."
"Like the song 'Deliver Me'. It talks about a guy who's partying and all that, but he hits rock bottom and needs help. He realizes he needs help." says Randolph.
"It's almost like talking to guys like Clapton and Steven Tyler. Those guys have lived that, so maybe it will say something to someone who's living it (now)."
So long as Randolph remains focused and keeps down the path he's been heading, he'll have plenty of opportunity to let his music speak to people. Even if you aren't listening to the words, you can't deny the positive energy that surrounds the band and transcends the music.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band will be returning to the Cain's Ballroom on Wednesday night, February 28. Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm.
This is the "can't miss" show of the month: no opening band has been announced, so Tulsa will be indulged with a full evening of the Family Band's signature blend of gospel, rock, funk and soul. Make sure and be there for the celebration.
The Week at a Glance
As always, we've got all kinds of music in town this weekend, but the schedule is especially kind to blues, roots and Texas/Red Dirt fans. As always, be sure to check the UTW events calendar section for the complete lowdown on club schedules, but here' a list of the week's highlights.
Josh Davis Band kicks off the weekend early with a stop at Mercury Lounge in Thursday, February 22.
Davis is an unknown quantity around here, as he's a northern boy (well, from Iowa) working his way south instead of the usual Texas musician traveling north. Nevertheless, he's a strong songwriter, as evidenced by his latest CD, The White Whale.
He's got a few future shows lined up to open for Bleu Edmondson and Mike McClure, so you know he can't be bad. If you're looking for something new, be sure to check him out tonight at the Mercury.
If you like to play your cards close to the vest, Susan Herndon will be at the Midtown Bourbon Street Café, on Cherry Street tonight with her trio. Word on the street is that Susan will be releasing a new CD in the not too distant future, so catching her now might score you a little preview of the coming songs.
Friday night is blues night at the Cain's Ballroom as Kelly Hunt returns to Tulsa. I believe last time she was in town, it was as an opener for Delbert McClinton. This time around, she's the headliner and Wanda Watson Band will be opening the show. Doors open at 7pm and tickets are $17 at the door.
R&B and hip hop fans should head over to the Hive on Friday, February 23, for Tulsa Takeova -- The Jumpoff! with CoCo Jones, YesLes, DJ Dyme, DJ Bianca and more. Cover is $10 at the door and the party starts at 10pm.
A few blocks over, indie-rock fans can catch Burned Up Bled Dry, Fumar, and JorDan at the Mooch & Burn for a $5 show that should start around 9pm.
Elsewhere on Friday night, February 23, Jeff Martinson's Low Light Travelers are at The Continental and Mike Hosty Duo rocks Boston's.
The true highlight of Friday, however, is The Starkweather Boys CD release party at the Mercury Lounge.
If you haven't caught The Starkweather Boys live show yet, it's a blend of early R&B, rockabilly, honky-tonk and jump-blues. The new CD, Archer Street Blues, is a time-warp back to the '50's.
I can't think of a better way to celebrate once spring officially arrives than to go out cruising on a Saturday afternoon in a classic convertible with "Abigail Blue" or "Man Without Shame" blaring from the stereo. Rockabilly and roots fans can't go wrong with this one.
Mercury Lounge follows up on Saturday night with The Riptides, and Dirty's Tavern jump starts its spring schedule with a stop by Bleu Edmondson the same night, to give the party-goers reason to go back out on the 24th.
Yonder Mountain String Band's annual "Cabin Fever" tour makes its regular stop this Saturday night at the Cain's Ballroom. There's no opening act, so it will be a full night of the Yonder Mountain boys. Doors will open at 7pm for the 8pm show.
And I'll let you in on a little secret... If you're a jazz fan, you won't want to miss the Brian Haas Quartet at The Continental on Saturday night, February 24.
For the Quartet gig, Brian will be playing with Josh Raymer and Chris Foster behind one of our cities latest jazz sirens, Annie Ellicott. Cover is $5 and doors open at 9pm, so get there early enough to settle in close to the stage and enjoy the evening.
On Sunday night, February 25, the Jazz Hall of Fame hosts one of the coolest shows of its spring series with "The Four Gents of Swing": Jeff Shadley, Jason Ofori, Phil Armstrong and Devre Jackson. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and college students, and $3 for junior and high school students.
On Tuesday night, February 27, The Tree in Claremore hosts Last Tuesday on their farewell tour with special guests Signal Home, The Switch, and Impact 28.
Finally, looking out a little further, next Thursday night, March 1, sees a couple of tours stop in town. The Moody Blues will be at the Brady Theater ($72/$42) and Terri Hendrix will be at the All-Souls Acoustic Coffeehouse with Lloyd Maines ($15). Call the venues or check online for more details.
Gimme My Nickelback
Or they want to see Nickelback, one of the two. How else can you explain this week's two sold out shows? No, I didn't forget that American Idol's cast-off megastar, Daughtry, is in town on Sunday night, February 25, for an intimate show at The Otherside. I also couldn't overlook the arrival of OKC's multiplatinum Hinder at The Brady on Wednesday, the 28th.
Both shows sold out in advance, however, so you'll be left to try your luck with the scalpers if you don't have tickets already.
If you come up empty on Wednesday night, feel free to join me at the Robert Randolph show. I guarantee it will be a much more memorable experience.
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