LESS THAN two years ago, Robert Randolph worked weekdays as a paralegal for a New Jersey law firm.
On Sundays, however, you could find him at the House of God Pentecostal Church in Orange, N.J., fueling the hometown congregation's music-driven worship service with his kinetic guitar wizardry, a style known as Sacred Steel. Sitting behind his purple, custom-built 13-string pedal steel, Randolph improvised around the ministers' sermons and congregants' testimonies, mimicking the human voice in brilliant gospel glory.
The word got out, then "The Word" (more on that later) got Randolph out of the church, as the jam-band world found great affinity with his brilliant brew of gospel, blues, soul and rock. Critics turned to easy-to-digest pop encomiums ("the Jimi Hendrix of pedal steel guitar" seems the most popular, with comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Duane Allman close behind) as an entry point into Sacred Steel, a vital, but obscure, African American spiritual and musical tradition.
Pretty soon, Robert Randolph and the Family Band were opening for Widespread Panic and the Dave Matthews Band. The first time Randolph's family ever saw him perform outside of the House of God church (where his father is a deacon and his mother a minister) was when he opened for Matthews last year at Madison Square Garden. Randolph and the Family Band were on that bill as the new buzz band on the jam-band circuit. In October, they won New Groove of the Year (that's jam-talk for best new band) at the Jammy Awards at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.
And while radio play remains elusive, you've probably been hearing Randolph on ABC Television promos since Thanksgiving. That's when the network started airing "We Got Hoops," Randolph's new theme music for the network's NBA weekend game packages starting on Christmas Day.
Excuse Randolph, all of 24 and only eight years removed from first picking up his instrument, if he seems pleasantly shell-shocked.
"I didn't know what was going to come about, didn't think all this was going to happen," Randolph says quietly. "I just wanted to be a player in the church."
Since the '30s, the steel guitar has been the main instrument in services at the House of God, a small African American denomination with churches in a dozen states. More commonly found in country and Hawaiian music, the steel guitar was introduced for practical economic reasons -- it was a cheap alternative to expensive church organs. Pioneers Troman and Willie Eason developed its signature sound -- imitating the singing and shouting styles that defined the black church experience -- and the instrument quickly caught on (the electric pedal steel arrived in the '70s).
This was the tradition Randolph grew up surrounded by. Though he showed no particular interest in participating in it until his mid-teens, he couldn't help but absorb the work of the great masters of Sacred Steel like Willie Eason, Calvin Cooke, Ted Beard, Henry Nelson and Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers.
"In my church in Orange, we didn't have a lap steel or a pedal steel player," recalls Randolph, who actually started out as a drummer. "When I was 15, my father bought me a lap steel. I picked it up and I played it -- and I set it under my bed for another year. For one thing, I really wanted a pedal.
"And I was still in those 'young kid' years, still running the streets," says Randolph, recalling a time when his playing was profitably focused on dice and cards. "I had an advantage that many other kids didn't, going to church and getting that whole other outlook on life, but I did a lot of things I knew I wasn't supposed to do. I was going around and being a complete dummy, doing stupid things."
According to Randolph, the shooting death of his best friend proved a turning point. "At 16, I started to spend more time in the house with the guitar, hours and hours a day, which kept me off the street. I knew I was doing something positive, playing an instrument for a church. As time went on, I became more serious."
Randolph studied the recordings of the Sacred Steel masters; some like Cooke and Beard (his father's father-in-law) schooled him in technique, but perhaps more importantly, in how to play emotionally in service to the church. Starting on a standard six-string pedal steel guitar, the youngster quickly moved on to a 10-string model and, finally, to the custom-built 13-string instrument he plays today. Looking like an electric keyboard, it rests horizontally on Randolph's knees, loaded with foot pedals and knee levers that bend and shift notes as his left hand slides across and his right hand picks at the strings, creating a haunting sound very different than its country, bluegrass and Hawaiian counterparts.
Growing up, Randolph had been exposed mostly to gospel, R&B and hip-hop (his sister, Lenesha, has sung backup for Lauryn Hill and a brother, Everette, has been a vocal coach for both Hill and the group Dru Hill). But, he admits, he wasn't particularly conscious of rock, jazz or blues history until a friend gave him a tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan and introduced him to the world of guitar pyrotechnics.
Vaughan's amped-up version of "Voodoo Chile" soon made its way into Randolph's repertoire. That's because Randolph had never heard Jimi Hendrix's original. In fact, he hadn't heard of Hendrix. A second musical education began and elements of rock, blues and jazz began slipping into Randolph's playing in church, something that was not always cool with the elders.
"You have to be very, very sneaky about it," Randolph admits. "Even the most sacred of the Sacred Steel players pick up a riff somewhere, but you go about it a certain way to incorporate it into the hard-core gospel that we're used to playing."
The haunting sounds of Sacred Steel had started slipping into the mainstream in 1996 with the release of the first "Sacred Steel" album on Arhoolie, a small label dedicated to roots and folk musics. Robert Stone, a Florida folklorist, discovered it after a local music store owner alerted him to a steady stream of African American customers for steel-guitar supplies. Thanks to an NEA grant, Stone made the first ever compilation featuring five Sacred Steel masters, including Willie Eason, Sonny Treadway and Nelson.
Randolph first appeared on record on 1999's "Sacred Steel -- Live!," but his breakthrough came at the first annual Sacred Steel convention in Florida in 2000, after which he was encouraged to form a band and start performing outside the church. For the Family Band, Randolph turned to cousins Danyel Morgan (bass and vocals) and Marcus Randolph (drums), whom he'd played with since their teens. Hammond B-3 player John Ginty signed on soon after.
The Family Band started gigging regularly at the Lakeside Lounge in New York's East Village, quickly finding favor among jam-band fans and like-minded musicians. The North Mississippi Allstars invited them to open a show at the Bowery Ballroom for a sold-out house that included keyboardist John Medeski of jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Medeski, Randolph and three-fifths of the Allstars teamed up for "The Word," a gospel-oriented instrumental project, and their tour to support it further entrenched them in the jam-band community.
That success earned Randolph disapproval from some church elders: a couple of years ago, some church leaders pulled him aside at the annual House of God General Assembly in Nashville, questioning his musical experiments and playing outside the church. Even his own father, the deacon, "was a little shaky about it at first, like a lot of other church folks were," Randolph says. "But as time went on, they've seen what I've done and the songs I sing and the lives I've touched through the music.
"Plus, people end up wanting to hear and know about the church, whose sound and style is something they've never heard before, never witnessed," he points out. "There's been visits by people of all races and ages, so a lot of the church people have learned to accept what I do and just pray and be supportive and hope everything works out. I stay in God's hand."
Randolph doesn't get to play in his hometown church as much as he used to, but he's convinced that his current path is part ministry and part homage to the masters of Sacred Steel who came before.
"That's what drives me every day, and what gave me the push that I needed to go ahead and do this -- the fact that you had these guys, some of whom have already died and went on to glory, and some who are still living who are great players and they created the tradition of this music."
Randolph and the Family Band are now signed to Warner Bros., which recently reissued their independent "Live at the Wetlands" album to tide folks over until the band's first studio album, set for early 2003.
Which gives Randolph time to hone his considerable virtuosity.
"I'm a long way from mastering the pedal steel guitar, a long, long way," he insists. "I just started -- I've only been playing eight years and for the first five, I was learning to master the styles of each of our Sacred Steel forefathers. Now I'm trying to do all that and implement different things from other styles of music into what I've been doing."
Like his guitar, he suggests staying tuned.
ROBERT RANDOLPH AND THE FAMILY BAND -- Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Robert Randolph, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121 . (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)