Is it black gospel or the sounds of rock and roll heaven? You be the judge.
Is it black gospel or the sounds of rock and roll heaven? You be the judge.

Various Artists

Yes, this CD is dominated by the steel guitar, in both its pedal and lap variants, but check your twangy expectations at the door. Unless you're already a devotee of Arhoolie's Sacred Steel series or a member of either the House of God, Keith Dominion or the Church of the Living God, Jewell Dominion, you've never heard that honky-tonkiest of instruments played quite like this.

Hell, you've never heard gospel quite like this either, not unless you've been to and come back from that rock and roll heaven that mullet-headed fans of dead rockers harp on about. But if there is such a place and Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman are in it, this is what they would sound like today, assuming, of course, that St. Peter issued them steel guitars.

The Keith and Jewell Dominions are predominantly African-American Pentecostal sects, each with its own musical traditions. They both regard the steel guitar as a holy instrument; it's what they do with it that varies. The classic Jewell Dominion sound is a driving, entrancing one-chord boogie, while the Keith Dominion -- whose players numerically dominate this disc -- favors slower tempos, wah-wah pedals and multiple chord changes.

Leave it to the one convert on the collection to steal the show. Calvin Cooke is a Keith adherent who was born into the Jewell faith, and it shows in the way he plays. His "I'll Just Wave My Hand" is one of the most exciting pieces of music you'll ever hear. Cooke's lap steel wails, keens, moans and cries hosanna while his wife, Grace, chants out the song's sermon -- all of which is contained in the five titular words. In the background, Jay Caver scratches out one of the flat-out funkiest rhythm guitar lines on record, while Carlton Campbell's drums chunk, thud and crash. Taken together it sounds like the workings of the engine on the train that's bound for glory.

While nothing else here quite matches Cooke's tune for primal, speaking-in-tongues adrenaline, plenty more comes close, and not just from the steel players. Brother Sam Baldwin's falsetto on opener "Where Could I Go But to the Lord?" is scalp-tingling, while 21-year-old Marcus Randolph's "Sign of the Judgement" approaches Cooke's offering in the shake-ya-ass department.

Some of the material here will be familiar to rock fans: Robert Randolph's "You've Got to Move" is the same Fred McDowell number covered by the Rolling Stones, and Reggie Covington's "Footie's Medley" segues through "Love Lift Us Up" to a floor-rattling version of "The Pink Panther Theme" and beyond.

If a rock band were ever to fully secularize these sounds, it might well have a hit on its hands. The North Mississippi All Stars recently gave it a try when they collaborated with Robert Randolph on last year's The Word, and for a time it topped the Billboard blues chart. And it seems that another star from north Mississippi once made quite a living appropriating the religious music of blacks in and around Memphis. But then that guy's in rock and roll heaven now. Or is he?


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