Robert Randolph and the Family Band
Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Robert Randolph and the Family Band Upstate Concert Hall, Clifton Park, NY April 22, 2017

Story by Bill Shattuck

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As any avid music purveyor knows, regardless of acquired taste, genre or sound, there are many musical avenues that can bring you to that essential beating heart of expression; that experience where time stands still and nothing matters but the magic on stage.  This writer seeks gratification from jam, jazz, metal, folk, punk, rock, and hip-hop, as most of you might.  Every so often, a true surprise puts all doubt, that the live music medium is alive and trustworthy.

It’s safe to say, as one of those magic moment seekers, the experience has never been as vividly felt as it was this evening with Robert Randolph and Family Band (Upstate Concert Hall, Clifton Park, NY 4/22/17). Forgoing the typical note-for-note analysis, I’ll briefly touch on the beauty of the evening.  As this was my third time viewing the Family Band, I expected the typical hard-driving backbeat and lap steel slide heroics that Robert and Co. have been known to deliver to teeming crowds for years now.

In the past, these shows have always brought a sense of instrument mastery with a whimsical soul-party vibe, and tonight was no exception.  However, something in the air of this intimate, less than 1,000-person crowd, hummed of a vibrancy and comfort seldom seen, even in the headiest of acts. The venue should have been packed to the rafters to match the artists’ enthusiasm, but for the thankful few in attendance, quality outmatched quantity ten fold.

From the YouTube channel of RollercoasterManiacs:

Robert stepped on stage and noodled on his beloved instrument of choice (lap steel) for a good few minutes, before busting into a raucous cover of Black Sabbath’s classic “War Pigs.”  The crowd was immediately brought to a frenzy to such a brazen opener.  This was one of a few tremendously-placed covers (Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” and The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” being among the others).

Throughout the night, the band would set the crowd ablaze with a mixture of Chicago-style blues and Louisiana swamp funk that felt all-encompassing of what a musical party should be.  As many know, the Family Band is exactly that: family.  Robert’s sister [Lanesha] gave a master class in soul vocals, with unlimited breath and note control, all while improvising vocal trade-offs with her brother, who may or may not have been in the middle of a blistering lap steel solo.

While musician names/ familial relation could not be acquired at the time of this writing, all in attendance can attest to the serious presence and prowess of each family member: a thundering 5-string funk/jazz bassist, a metronomic backbeat machine, a funky clav coordinator and a ripping guitarist/ soul vocalist (not to mention a decent lap steel player).  The bassist had a swaggering confidence that kept everything else buoyant without falter;  the drummer displayed the most clear and comfortable back beat in the business, whether dabbling in blistering 150 BPM soul charges or swampy lowdown blues;  the keyboardist found every syncopated nook and cranny possible to infuse polished organ and clavinet selections; and the guitarist wowed with monstrous soul vox and shredding blues licks.  All the while, Robert soulfully struck gold with his dizzyingly transportive riffs.

At one moment lamenting and weeping, and in another, shooting flames to the ceiling, pointing upwards to direct the audience’s attention to the damage.  Robert can glide from sweeping epic passages, to quiet chicken scratch rhythmic pulses that leaves the audience begging for a climax; but he only doles these out when the band naturally reaches it simultaneously.  Likely the best part of the show was the patience before delivering a mighty blow.  As most know, music that either continuously over-reaches, or never takes off, can lead to an unfulfilling experience.  There was no shortage of balance this evening.

But just when the typical “round the horn” shenanigans began to take flight, the band pulled off one of…THE GREATEST…instrument “musical chairs” this writer has witnessed.  Mid-set, each musician took turns playing (get this) every one of the other instruments on stage.  To be clear, each musician had a chance to jam on every other instrument on stage, all while maintaining the pulse and chords of a singular swift-chugging soul-rock progression.  This began with Robert trading places with the drummer (who knew each was as equally talented at the other’s instrument?).

The switch-a-roo continued as Robert relinquished the drum sticks and decided to swap out with the bassist (who knew the bassist was basically as badass as the full-time drummer?).  As Robert thumped some seriously heavy jazz runs, the other musicians went around the horn swapping instruments every 64 measures or so until the band’s game brought them back to square one.  Suffice to say, many hands were involuntarily in the air and the sheer joy could not be contained.  I gave and received many bruise-inducing arm jabs with friends.

The band could not stop.  Even when the crowd was booming with praise, the band could not rest and would tumble headfirst into the next title in the setlist.  Robert’s interjections mid-song invited the crowd to reach out and appreciate one another, mightily inspiring people to participate in spreading the power of goodness.

After a rousing couple hours of music, the band provided a double encore and left jaws on the floor.  The heavy soul force exuded was apparent in the less than 1,000 smiling faces slowly leaving the dance floor.  After the show, I met Robert (who turned my timid fist bump into a handshake and a slap on the back).  He couldn’t have been more relaxed after such a frenzied experience.  The man (and band) can do serious damage, yet act as nonchalant as if their craft is akin to normal endeavors.  The sign of a true live musician is this ability; to wage peaceful war at each show.

To this point, my ears are still ringing, my muscles ache, but my heart and mind couldn’t be more placid.

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