Fans of Robert Randolph vary from those who relish the buoyant “sacred steel” jams of his concerts and early albums to those who enjoy his vibrant spin on modern blues-pop and R&B. Considering that album No. 4, We Walk This Road, is neither and takes Robert Randolph & The Family Band into a new direction, it’s understandable why fans are having a mixed reaction.
Interesting to learn that Randolph, one of our great modern guitarists, was not allowed to listen to blues music growing up—you’d swear it had a profound influence on his style and technique. But no, he only listened to modern gospel and Christian music in his youth. For Randolph’s latest—his first since 2006’s acclaimed Colorblind—the goal was to find a way to connect his faith with his history and heritage as an African-American.
Enter T-Bone Burnett, the award-winning producer behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Robert Randolph/Alison Krauss collaboration, not to mention an authority and archivist of early twentieth century Americana. The two worked on creating a fusion of Randolph’s sacred steel style with traditional blues, spirituals, and gospel music, yielding a mixture of originals, covers, and reworked covers. Suffice to say it was an educational experience for Randolph, who says he’s spent $5K on iTunes downloads over the last 18 months after becoming acquainted with a whole new world of music.
Don’t let the track listing fool you, though. Six of the seventeen tracks on We Walk This Road are segues that bookend three of Randolph’s recordings with the original blues-spirituals that inspired them. It’s an interesting but inconsistent gimmick that feels more like an interruption than it is enlightening.
Though Burnett is quite the musical historian and skilled at revitalizing old music, I wouldn’t call him a producer known for rip-roaring fun. Therein lies the disparity on We Walk This Road, since Randolph and his band sound like the epitome of a joyful noise. This album is just not as playful as his previous efforts.
Granted, it’s hard to replicate live energy on a studio album, but Randolph and his band have done it before. There’s certainly a cool groove here on “Back to the Wall,” and I especially enjoy the combination of a piano stomper with Randolph’s blues-gospel style on “Don’t Change.” Changing gears dramatically is the stirring closer “Salvation,” an inspirational gospel ballad underscored by legendary piano man Leon Russell and the vocals of Randolph’s cousin Danyel Morgan and sister Lenesha Randolph.
But the playfulness of Randolph’s past albums is missing. If you’re looking for something like “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That” to make you get up and dance, you won’t find it here. Songs like “Dry Bones” and “Traveling Shoes” share a lot in common and best illustrate the style of this album, drawing on spiritual metaphors but seemingly going through the motions musically.
For that matter, Randolph’s spiritual content is likely to draw mixed reactions too. This is easily his most overtly Christian album to date, which is sure to frustrate some of the steel guitarist’s secular fans. Yet the theology will strike some Christians as questionable at times. “I Still Belong to Jesus” is surely intended as an explicit testimony of grace, but some will interpret lines like “I still belong even though I turned my back” and “Once you’re in you can’t get out” as references to permanent salvation, even though the Bible clearly notes that it’s possible to reject our faith after accepting it.
In many ways, We Walk This Road is very comparable to the work of the Blind Boys of Alabama over the last decade, reworking classic blues and rock songs as modern day spirituals. Teaming with Ben Harper for guitar and vocals, Randolph offers a true blues-rock treat with a new version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way,” which details the battle with temptation found in the story of Samson and Delilah. There are also new versions of Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love,” Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk,” and John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama”—all good, though some more successful (and spiritually inspired) than others.
It’s also worth mentioning that the deluxe edition of this album at iTunes has three extra tracks that are worth getting. “Take My Hand” is more of the same, but “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” is a hypnotic sounding cautionary gospel song. And while “Memphis Beat” may be out of step thematically with the rest of the album, but it’s also the one that finally brings listeners back to Randolph’s playful style.
We Walk This Road still benefits from terrific musicianship and an enjoyable fusion of old and new gospel-blues. But it’s almost a matter of too much T-Bone and not enough Family Band. This is Randolph’s most mature project to date, but what was once a rather unique, joyful noise now sounds a little too well-tread and familiar.
Standouts: “If I Had My Way,” “Don’t Change,” “Memphis Beat”