One night he's scheduled to open for Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden, then he's headed south for the "Mother Earth Revival" at a biker compound in New Smyrna Beach. These days life is a blur for Robert Randolph. The 24-year-old guitar wonderkind has been working the road hard, gathering praise for his pedal-steel prowess and converting unsuspecting listeners into fans.
But even as the accolades come fast and furious, the easy-going Randolph doesn't exactly know where he's going. He's still feeling his way, trying to find the right musical combination that will rocket his unusual fare to the starry-eyed masses. Case in point: the just-released debut, "Live at the Wetlands," from Robert Randolph & The Family Band (robertrandolph.net). While the musicians ably amount a floor-thumping pedal-steel assault, the record is far too raw and rambling. Tracks like "Pressing My Way" wear thin after a few minutes, as ears search for more than fret-burning fireworks. No, the band's rejuvenating live sound has not yet been justifiably resurrected on plastic. But that hasn't stopped Randolph from being seriously sought after in live settings, the righteous way to see him really go.
Randolph's rough-around-the-edges but enthusiastic musical praising has found him a following on the jam-band circuit. He fits right into lineups boasting barefoot-wonder types, such as his headlining Sunday slot at this weekend's "Mother Earth Revival" (www.motherearthrevival.com) at Sopotnick's Cabbage Patch campground. The low-key, three-day music- and environmental-awareness festival features scores of Florida-based noodlers -- including locals funkUs, 4:20 and The Joint Chiefs -- all playing on a solar-powered stage, surrounded by earth-loving vibrations.
"It's music that people love to dance to ... and they love to clap to," Randolph says, talking from his home in New Jersey. "When they hear the sound, they just go crazy over it."
His list of notable worshippers reads like an issue of Rolling Stone: John Medeski, Dave Matthews, Flea, Kid Rock, The Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule, Stanley Jordan and Ben Harper. They all have found inspiration in Randolph's feel-good sounds and are eager to be the ones to bring him to a public hungry for a new sensation. So the recording-session invites, jam proposals and tour-opening slots cross all musical boundaries. It's a revelation, especially considering from where Randolph's signature style of music comes: The church.
Indeed, Randolph may be considered the black sheep of his House of God congregation, responsible for nurturing the pedal-steel genre dubbed Sacred Steel that is celebrated with an annual convention each spring in Orlando, where Randolph's management team discovered him two years ago. The close-knit community of worshipping performers praise the Lord through gospel songs thrust into the heavens by the joyous pedal-steel guitar. The emotional tug of the table-top-looking instrument's vocal-like cries carry listeners over the mountain top.
Randolph, the young stud of Sacred Steel, is the one who broke rank to work the music's versatile secular potential (though he's still welcome in his home-church circle). "You can get country with it, you can get bluesy -- I can rock it a little bit," he says. But he didn't mind dropping the church-requisite stuffy suit and tie for his now preferred street-smart getups and cornrowed hair.
Paving the way for Randolph's out-of-church run were his star-making contributions with The Word, the all-star jam-band group headed by Medeski and members of The North Mississippi Allstars. That project introduced Randolph's talents through a stunning recording and tour. He couldn't have asked for a better send-off. (While The Word has no plans to record again, Randolph says they are going to launch a Southern tour in late fall.)
These days, he's a rising star, opening for arena-fillers like Matthews, who, like so many others, has taken Randolph under his wing. He's also a hot commodity in the studio: Randolph & The Family Band were the backing group for gospel old-schoolers The Blind Boys of Alabama on a CD set to drop in September.
But Randolph still needs some schooling if he's going to go the distance. And he's working on it, honing his songwriting. His research has led him to recordings by Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Rolling Stones, two success stories who took from the blues and rhythm & blues, respectively, and crafted modern hits. But he's not there yet, and he knows it.
"That's what I'm trying to do now -- listen to a bunch of other people's ideas and try and see how I can mix it in with my style and then also write some of my own stuff," says the eager student.
Still, he's breaking ground.
"Guys at our church have been playing [Sacred Steel] for years, and those were great players. But, you know, when they were my age they could have never done what I'm doing now because the church kind of had strict rules. They would have been banned from playing the church back in those days."
So he soldiers on, Sacred Steel's goodwill ambassador. In fact, Randolph is committed to pumping up the volume at the next Sacred Steel Convention, which debuted in Orlando three years ago. His schedule kept him from this year's event earlier this month (sacredsteelconvention.com). But he hopes to boost its profile in 2003, inviting friends like famed Floridian axeslingers Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.
Now that would be sacred.