Photo by Douglas Mason.
If J. Robert Oppenheimer had explored gospel music instead of developing the atomic bomb, the results might have sounded like the Word: a wild, uncontainable explosion of musical ideas that careens from melody to melody with the velocity of a chain reaction.
On Soul Food—the group’s first release since their 2001 debut, The Word—this quintet of roots music whiz kids crackles with energy. They spike traditional material like “When I See the Blood” with bold flourishes of giddy steel and a guest vocal from soul-folk singer Ruthie Foster, They slam the sinuous two-part title track with rhythmic curveballs from all directions. They romp through footnotes of jazz, funk, and field hollers with rare, rambunctious virtuosity on the 13-track disc, which was mostly free-formed at Memphis’ famed Royal Studios (once home to producer Willie Mitchell and Hi Records) and in hipster NYC enclave Brooklyn Recording.
The Word’s front line features two of the world’s preeminent slide guitar players: Robert Randolph, a Bugs Bunny of pedal steel constantly up to all manner of sonic mischief, and North Mississippi All Stars guitarist Luther Dickinson, whose bloodline runs so deep in Southern soul, blues, and gospel that he’s practically got red clay in his veins.
Medeski Martin & Wood’s keyboard killer, John Medeski, blows the outfit’s creative mushroom cloud in further musical directions. And the group is moored—if that’s the right term for a band as untethered as a junkyard Rottweiler working the night shift—by drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew, one of the most formidable rhythm teams in contemporary roots rock.
If Dickinson and Randolph weren’t such amiable musical compadres, the Word’s live shows and studio recordings could be Mayweather versus Pacquiao-like affairs. Instead, their creative relationship is more like Dali meets Disney: two artistic visionaries who share brave, raucous perspectives.
That esprit de corps attitude led Dickinson—who’s also played with the Black Crowes, his famed producer/keyboardist/raconteur dad Jim Dickinson, John Hiatt, R.L. Burnside, the Wandering, Anders Osborne, the South Memphis String Band, Indigenous’ Mato Nanji, and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, and made two solo albums—to adopt a surprising modus operandi for Soul Food. “Slide’s my thing, my favorite, but I don’t think I played any slide on this album,” he says. “I played a lot of slide on the first Word album, but when we were on the road Cody pulled me aside and said, ‘Between you and Robert, there’s just too much slide.’ He was right. So this time I played a lot of rhythm guitar.”
Photo by Douglas Mason.
That gave free rein to Randolph, who built his estimable skills playing in the House of God church in what’s known as the sacred steel tradition. But on Soul Food, Randolph tempers the wild streak that sometimes makes the six albums he’s recorded with his own group, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, more about energy than substance. For every measure that Randolph whinnies freely (as on the thrumming chant “Come by Here”), he is equally tempered elsewhere.
Randolph’s full-bodied 13-string Jackson custom pedal steel sounds especially wise and beautiful on “When I See the Blood,” where he plays instrumental backing choir to Foster’s lead vocal, and on his own composition “The Highest,” where he crafts a shimmering dream world of gently overlapping melodies that float on the cumulous clouds billowing from Medeski’s organ. Randolph’s brand-new and unique pedal acoustic resonator guitar makes its debut on “Glory Glory,” where he fuses the fieriest aspects of high-octane bluegrass, country, and gospel picking. The prototype of the triple-pedal, 6-string instrument Randolph’s been developing with Nashville’s Jackson Steel Guitar Company was ready just in time for the Royal sessions. “That was my first time playing it, right there in the studio,” he relates. “They drove it straight to Royal. It’s tuned to an open G major chord. I haven’t used it live because it’s the prototype. We have to make a couple of tweaks, and then it’s coming right to the stage with me so we can do some acoustic tunes in concert.”
Since The Word introduced their group 14 years ago, Randolph, Dickinson, and company have convened only for gigs. “We just played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and it was the worst show we ever did—a train wreck,” Dickinson says. “We made a set list. We can’t have a set list! The Word has to be unbridled! Otherwise it just gets confusing. The Word does its best when there is no agenda.”
That may seem surprising, given the band members’ abilities to plate-spin seemingly endless projects, collaborations, and tours. But it’s also fitting, since the Word’s ultimate line-up formed spontaneously.
“Cody, Chris, and me heard the first sacred steel compilation on Arhoolie [1997’s Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida] and were inspired,” Dickinson recounts. “We were opening for Medeski Martin & Wood in 1998. We were listening to it and shooting the breeze with John, and we decided to make an instrumental gospel album together. Two years later we had the session scheduled, and just before we went into the studio the All Stars asked Robert to open up for us at the Wetlands in New York City. He was so amazing that we asked him to join us at the session.”