Friday, May 15, 2020

Revisiting The Slide Brothers

Aubrey Ghent, Darick Campbell, Calvin Cooke, Robert Randolph, Chuck Campbell
One of my iPod playlists is called "Sacred Steel," and it's one of my go-to lists that stays on my iPod about 90% of the time.  I first started listening to Sacred Steel in the early 2000's, after I happened to catch Robert Randolph and the Family Band on Austin City Limits one Saturday night.  The music was developed in the 1930's by a group of Pentecostal churches, at least in two denominations of the church.

Those two denominations (the Jewell Dominion, based in Indianapolis, and the Keith Dominion, based in Nashville) introduced steel guitar into their worship.  The sounds of the steel guitar replicate an extra singing voice at times and the new instrument was very successful in the churches in these two denominations, which have expanded to at least 22 states.

In the past 20 or so years, several of the guitarists have been recorded by various labels.  Arhoolie Records released several anthologies, which is where I heard a lot of them......The Campbell Brothers, Sonny Treadway, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Ted Beard, and Randolph, who took up steel guitar at 17, starting as a drummer (the usual progression in the churches).

Randolph supplemented his gospel music with other influences after he heard recordings from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sly & The Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Allman Brothers Band, and Buddy Guy.  Randolph combined the influences with the Sacred Steel tradition and set the music world on its ear, combining gospel and secular music effortlessly (though he's moved a bit more toward the sacred side on his recent effort with satisfying results).

I still plan to devote an entire post to the Sacred Steel tradition in the near future (yeah, I know I've been saying that for nearly a decade......I'm GONNA, okay???!!!).  Today, I wanted to talk about one album in particular that I pulled out earlier in the week after hearing about the death of Darick Campbell, one of two steel guitarist in the Campbell Brothers.  A few years ago, Darick and his brother Chuck appeared with two other Sacred Steel legends mentioned above.....Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent.....on an album conceived and co-produced by Randolph which bore the name Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers.

I plugged this album a few years ago at FBF with a mini-review, but it's worth revisiting.  The set list is a mix of blues, rock, and inspirational tunes, eleven in all.  Each guitarist gets a couple of tracks to shine.  The disc opens with the ABB's "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'," with Cooke singing and the Campbell Brothers' twin steel guitars soaring (with brother Phil playing guitar as well).  The Campbells also tackle George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," with vocalist Jimmy Carter (Blind Boys of Alabama) taking the mic.

The Campbell Brothers actually team up for three more tunes on the disc, a stunning instrumental reading of "Wade In The Water" (where one can really pick up the "singing" quality of the steel guitars), Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me Too," (with vocals from Cooke), and the traditional tune "Motherless Children," which they keep pretty close to the Eric Clapton version from the early 70's.  Chuck Campbell joins Randolph on the Elmore James standard "The Sky Is Crying" (with another vocal from Cooke and bass from Hendrix alum Billy Cox) near the end of the disc.

Cooke takes center stage with his own inspirational "Help Me Make It Through," playing guitar and singing.  He also joins Ghent on two of his three featured tracks, sharing steel guitar duties on a funky take on Mylon LeFevre's "Sunday School Blues," and one of a pair of tunes from Andrew Ramsey....a blues-meets-the-church call-and-response version of "Catch That Train." Ghent also gives a spirited performance on Ramsey's joyous "No Cheap Seats In Heaven."

In addition to his appearance with Chuck Campbell on the Elmore James classic, Randolph makes a memorable appearance on "Praise You," a tune actually written by Fatboy Slim, with blues belter Shemekia Copeland, who nearly brings the roof down with her performance.  Randolph's brother Marcus, who usually plays drums, joins Robert on steel guitar on this track......the tradition continues.

The rest of the Family band (bassist Danyel Morgan, keyboardist Jason Crosby) also make appearances, as do members of the Campbell Brothers band (bassist Orlando Wright, drummer Carlton Campbell), as well as former Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton and keyboardist Marty Sammon.

The song selection is split between gospel and secular, but the delivery of the songs can be interpreted in either direction for the most part, so there's something here for the spiritual and non-spiritual to enjoy.  It's definitely worth a listen and it might pique your interest in this fascinating genre of music, which we will explore more deeply in the future.......I promise!!

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