By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Monday night's show at the Southgate House was the pedal-steel-enhanced blues-rock event of the year.
Granted, there aren't many entrants to that narrow category of competition. So let's paint in broader strokes and call Robert Randolph and the Family Band's performance the best blues-rock show of recent memory, steel guitar or otherwise.
Randolph isn't your average pickin'-and-grinnin' steelie. Known as a "sacred steel" player, Randolph came up as a musician through the church.
The set gave little evidence of Randolph's holy musical ways, other than a bit of "Amazing Grace" sprinkled into a medley at the end of the night. The 2 1/2-hour performance was a ferocious workout that touched upon the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Slim Harpo. Randolph even gave the devil, or AC/DC, its due, as he dropped the riff of "Hell's Bells" into one song.
Randolph and the three-man band opened for John Mayer at Miami University's Millett Hall in November, but that show couldn't prepare anyone for the powerhouse jam that ensued Monday. Maybe his act doesn't work in oversized rooms like Millett. Or maybe he just didn't want to scare the undergrads.
Playing a custom-made 13-string pedal steel, Randolph made the instrument ring and soar like a regular six-string guitar. Hendrix's playing is a point of reference that jumps to mind, due in part to Randolph constant use of a wah-wah pedal.
The songs were of the 15-minute variety, but they seldom felt long, thanks to his cousins Danyel Morgan (bass) and Marcus Randolph (drums), who rocked harder than the rhythm section of any of those other jam bands with whom the Family Band is grouped. Hammond B-3 player John Ginty rounded out the band.
Their collective groove is far and away the band's strength, and neither the singing nor the songwriting was very memorable. Hard-driving country-blues instrumentals was the band's specialty, but covers got the crowd of 391 really going, from Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times" to the Hendrix medley of "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Child" to bizarre stuff like Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
The highlight was Harpo's "Shake Your Hips," featuring about a dozen women from the crowd who took to the stage and did just that.
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