Jersey kid Robert Randolph is out to change all that. His appearance goes a long way; a 24-year-old black man with cornrows wearing a football jersey is about as far as you can get from the prevailing stereotype of a steel player. And then there's the sounds he draws forth from the 13-stringed instrument on his year-old album, Live at the Wetlands, a wailing, bluesy, razor's-edge keen more reminiscent of Duane Allman or his idol Stevie Ray Vaughan than it is of the honky-tonky hot licks of a Buddy Emmons or a Speedy West.
Only six years ago, Randolph's stock-in-trade -- the African-American Pentecostal gospel style known as sacred steel -- was so obscure that even the veteran song-searcher (and Arhoolie Records chief) Chris Strachwitz had never heard of it. In tiny churches dotting the East and Midwest, congregations called forth the Holy Spirit with steel guitars. They had been doing so for 70 years, when the first sacred steel man introduced the instrument as a substitute for the pipe organ his little church couldn't afford. It's a new century, and now Randolph takes an organ player on the road with him, the better to back his steel.
Discovered in Florida at a convention of sacred steel musicians, Randolph is now signed to Warner Bros. (his studio debut, tentatively titled Unclassified, is due out this summer) and riding a wave of good press. Aside from music critics, not everybody is happy about the preacher's kid's rise to fame; some in his church think what he's doing is a sin, but then there were those who said the same thing about Ray Charles's secularizing of gospel and rebranding it as soul and also about the nameless person long ago who changed the words of some primordial gospel tune and called it the blues.
Randolph will be making his Houston debut at this show, though this won't be his first gig in Texas. Last September, he and his Family Band (which includes John Ginty on the aforementioned Hammond B-3 organ and his cousins Danyell Morgan and Marcus Randolph on bass and drums, respectively) torched the inaugural Austin City Limits festival in the capital, prompting veteran music scribes there to trot out their thesauri for seldom-deployed superlatives. From reading what they wrote, and from hearing what's in the grooves on Live at the Wetlands, this is shaping up to be one of those gigs that people will be talking about for a long, long time.