Robert Randolph and the Family Band: We Walk This Road

RIYL: Ben Harper, The Derek Trucks Band, Jimi Hendrix

Pedal steel guitar maestro Robert Randolph has been known more for his hot live shows than his albums, which comes with the territory when you have such instrumental talent and fit in with the jam crowd. But this album may finally help Randolph break through to a wider audience. T Bone Burnett is the producer, and he’s had a magic touch lately. Randolph says he and Burnett sat down and really examined some music history, which has served to maximize Randolph’s authentically bluesy vibe, as well as leading to some choice covers.

Opener “Traveling Shoes” is taken from an old field recording from the 1920s and finds Randolph and his sister Lenesha testifying over some gospel-tinged roots. The song sets a tone for an album that blends blues, gospel and rock in expert fashion. “Shot of Love” offers a cover of the title track from Bob Dylan’s 1981 Christian-tinged album. It’s well done, though it certainly doesn’t approach Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version of “All Along the Watchtower,” something Randolph says he was thinking about as far as trying to get into Jimi’s head on the process of covering Dylan. But Randolph strikes gold on a vibrant rendition of Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk” that takes the funky song to a truly higher level. The empowering, feel-good jam featuring more harmony assistance from Lenesha is almost certain to become a new live favorite. There’s also a deep cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama,” a well-timed bluesy lament in 2010 as the ridiculous war in Afghanistan surpasses the Vietnam War for Uncle Sam’s longest military engagement.

Another highlight comes with “If I Had My Way,” a modern version of an old Blind Willie Johnson blues that features Ben Harper guesting on guitar and vocals. It’s got an old-timey Delta blues vibe that has Randolph and Harper squaring off with great results. “Dry Bones” also builds off an old blues, which gets pumped up for a tasty workout. “I Still Belong to Jesus” has Randolph playing off his gospel roots, with his liquid steel work shining once more. “I’m Not Listening” delivers some modern blues, with Randolph calling out a century of lies for comeuppance. “Salvation” closes the album with a soulful gospel ballad, featuring piano from Leon Russell and some of Randolph’s tastiest licks.

Randolph and band have been honing their act for an entire decade now and We Walk This Road is their best work yet, as it has a strong flow to it and there’s no desire to skip over tracks. Randolph has evolved from young gun to seasoned master. (Warner Brothers 2010)

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