With a randy li'l devil getting funky on one shoulder, and a tsk-tsking angel urging good gospel on the other, pedal steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph -- one of the most explosive live-show performers currently stomping the boards -- catered to both sinners and saints at a sold-out 9:30 club Saturday.
Let's get all accusations of hyperbole out of the way first, okay? At the end of this two-hours-plus revival -- a fever dream that mixed the secular soul of Al Green with the dirty boogie of ZZ Top, the greasy funk of Sly Stone with the cleansing R&B of Sam Cooke -- a sweat-slick Randolph bowed before the throngs and admitted, "This is one of the best shows I've ever put on."
And that's not boasting, folks -- that's testifyin'.
If you caught the Grammy Awards this year, you probably remember the 26-year-old Randolph and his Family Band taking part in a funk showdown that also featured George Clinton and Earth, Wind & Fire. With all due respect to those legends, Randolph made them look like wheezy chumps.
As the legend goes, Randolph did some very bad things growing up in the Garden State. Then he found his way into the House of God Church, where he learned the ways of the "sacred steel" tradition -- that is, using the pedal steel guitar, long a staple of woozy honky-tonk tunes, to fuel the choir. He also decided to curb his mischievous ways.
Since that time, Randolph has been musically torn between gods -- the Almighty and such lesser deities as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. The results of his struggles between Sunday school and the school of rock have been nothing short of life-affirming.
"I'm feeling good tonight, and I wanna make you feel good!" Randolph hollered at the show's 'round-midnight start. "Can I get a witness!"
Sitting center stage behind his custom-made 13-string instrument, Randolph led his four-piece Family Band (bassist Danyell Morgan and drummer Marcus Randolph are cousins) through an opening, and downright wicked, instrumental of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." It featured the first of dozens of the artist's awe-inspiring pugilistic solos.
Just because Randolph was sitting doesn't mean he was sitting still. Dressed in a blousy red shirt and a white fedora -- a hat that fell off (and stayed off) during the second song, "Good Times (3 Stroke)"
-- the big guy with those big hands slipping and sliding over that guitar threatened to blast off from his seat all night long. He tossed his head back, kicked out his legs, and gave wild-eyed looks to the audience that asked, "Can you believe I'm doing this?"
And sometimes he just had to get up and show off. The night's body-quivering highlight was the call-and-response salvation special "Nobody," one of the best tunes on his debut studio album, 2003's aptly titled "Unclassified." After heating up the funk-gospel tune to rapturous heights, Randolph switched places with the drummer, who mad-grinned through his turn at the pedal steel as Robert, who'd started as a tub-thumper, tried his best to pound the skins into twisted metal. Then Robert switched places with bassist Morgan. Then the bassist switched places with the B-3 organist. And so on. By the end of the 10-minute jam, all the performers were on different instruments -- and all of them were laughing -- but the music stayed miraculously tight.
Randolph is a showman in every sense of the word. He merged standards for the holy one-two punch of "People Get Ready" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." He got silly with a raucous rendition of Harold Faltermeyer's "Beverly Hills Cop" theme, "Axel F." And for Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away," he invited some 50 women onstage, who were commanded, in a moment of religious lapse, to "shake those hips!"
After encore versions of the incendiary "I Need More Love" and his sublimely crescendoing rave-up "Squeeze," Randolph couldn't help but return to the stage one more time -- even though half the club, thinking the show was over, had already left. He pounded out a militaristic take on the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," albeit with Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" tucked inside. For the fans still standing, there were only two words left to say: Good Lord.