For the past decade or so, Robert Randolph has been the ambassador of the pedal steel guitar, lifting his instrument out of relative obscurity and onto a new level of cultural awareness.
The role came at a cost: 300 days of touring a year, energy-sapping post-show parties, a revolving door of bossy music-industry types with unrealistic expectations. After three studio albums, a couple of live recordings and countless guest appearances on other artists' dates, Randolph was spent.
With "Lickety Split," however, his first album in three years and his Blue Note Records debut, Randolph sounds rejuvenated. Engineered by the legendary Eddie Kramer, the album features 12 tracks of rock, funk and blues, catchy choruses and jam-band vamps, gospel shouts and earthy soul.
"When we started recording, it was the first time we had to just sit down and create," Randolph said by phone from his home in New Jersey. "Over the years we had gotten away from who we are." (Randolph and the Family Band plays at the Mohegan Sun Wolf Den on Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m.)
Creating the signature swells and glissandos of the pedal steel — the Rube Goldberg machine of the bandstand — involves sliding a metal bar across a set of 10 or 14 strings with one hand and plucking with the other, all the while depressing pitch-bending and volume-control pedals with one's feet, a cruel mash-up of guitar-playing and tap dancing. The instrument is fretless, which means the player has to be deadly accurate with the bar in order to play in tune.
While juggling those physical demands, Randolph also sings in a throaty growl and directs his band from his seated position on the stage, interjecting stinging blues leads that are amplified in an aggressive, over-driven tone, a far cry from what's usually heard on American country and Hawaiian music recordings. (Not surprisingly, Randolph, who comes from a line of "sacred steel" players from the House of God church, is most often compared with rock guitarists.)
After some initial success, the music industry had its own ideas for how Randolph's career should shake out: aim for hit singles, organize collaborations with well-established songwriters, arrange high-profile appearances and crossover opportunities, and so on.
"We let producers or someone at a label have too much influence, too big an interpretation of who we are," Randolph said. "In this day and age, you have people at a label with so much turnover. You get a guy or girl at a label who is assigned to your project. They don't really know who you are. Now they're in charge of your project."
An important step in Randolph's musical rehabilitation was the decision to work with Kramer, known for his pioneering work with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Faces, Traffic, John Mayall, the Nice and other late '60s and early '70s blues/rock acts.
Early on, Kramer shared stories of Hendrix's working methods. "'You guys go to the studio and play, and I hit the record button,' is what he told Hendrix," Randolph said. "'The creative thing starts when you are playing.'"
Randolph and the Family Band, which includes family members Marcus Randolph on drums, Danyel Morgan on bass and Lenesha Randolph vocals, in addition to guitarist Brett Haas, approached the recording of "Lickety Split" like a series of jam sessions, a conscious throwback to the band's early days.
"You go in and play and play and play," Randolph said. "The drummer hits something. You make up some lyrics. That's the way I've always been, but being on some label, where some guy comes into the room and says, 'I don't hear a song,' you get away from that."
When the sessions wrapped, Randolph had more than 20 songs left over, enough for a second album.
"We just didn't get around to finishing them. We wound up choosing the songs [for 'Lickety Split'] that we wrote when we started this project, and the latter stuff is like, Damn! Now there won't be this year-and-a-half between albums anymore... We just want to keep the engine going and making sure we're all refreshed. Our creative energy is at an all-time high right now. We just have to keep going."
These days, Randolph said, he's keeping the after-hours fun to a minimum.
"You don't party until 3 a.m. anymore. You play a show and go to bed. It's not about sleeping until sound check... You slow down to speed up, while pressing all the right buttons."
Robert Randolph and the Family Band perform at Mohegan Sun Wolf Den, 1 Mohegan Sun Blvd., Uncasville on Dec. 28 at 8 p.m.. Free. mohegansun.com
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