MUSIC REVIEW- Nit-picking: Critics hit Randolph's technique
There's a bit of scandal surrounding Robert Randolph, and in recent weeks it's come to my attention a number of times. For the amount of press the young pedal steel player is getting, there's an equally passionate backlash of player-haters who are disgruntled by his newfound fame.
Seems that many who fancy themselves pedal steel players or are fans of the instrument believe Randolph to be deficient in the technique department. They believe his style lacks refinement, and they say it's hard to respect a player who doesn't completely explore all the aspects of his instrument.
I've heard some of the dissenters go as far as to say he's not good. With all the talk, I had to see the guy in action for myself. I had my suspicions about what all the fuss was about, and I wanted to be able to confirm or deny them at his April 20 Pavilion performance.
Robert Randolph approaches the pedal steel with the spirit of gospel and the guts of rock n roll. If a traditionally trained, technique-oriented pedal steel player is what you're looking for, then you're better off listening to Alan Jackson or some other Nashville superstar.
Randolph comes at the instrument much like Jimi Hendrix did his guitar. What he plays is directly from his heart and soul far from the pages of an instruction manual. His music is more southern Baptist shout cadences mixed with Mississippi blues than anything traditional.
Randolph plays his instrument through a variety of effects that give it the feel of an electric guitar. The sound is enormous– clean and crunchy. I was completely taken by surprise as some of his jams escalated in tension and intensity until exploding in what we in church used to call "holy ghost music." (That's when a large portion of the congregation breaks into dance, and people start running in the aisles and speaking in tongues.)
Yes, Randolph did lack a certain measure of technique. This definitely showed in the lack of complexity in his tunes. But technique and training aren't enough to make a great musician.
Louis Armstrong had terrible technique– any trumpet teacher in the world will tell you not to puff your cheeks when playing. Yet, one of the greatest musicians in American history is notorious for how enormous his cheeks are when he plays. His unorthodox approach to playing gave him a very recognizable tone and timbre. That tone is tone any jazz aficionado can distinguish in just a few notes.
Same goes for Miles Davis, who would tuck his chin to his chest while he played– a sure-fire way to hack off any trumpet instructor who's a stickler for breathing posture.
Thelonius Monk found a way to striking two adjacent notes simultaneously, resulting in unique chords that included quartertones. No one had done that before.
For his first single, "Please, Please, Please," James Brown released a song that pretty much just repeats the title of the songs over and over for three and a half minutes, his first million-selling single. It wasn't what he said, but how he said it.
Robert Randolph is very much the same type of musician. Maybe he's the James Brown of the pedal steel: a bandleader and spiritual performer. Maybe his style will eclipse his lack of training like Louis Armstrong. Maybe his passion to do different will overshadow is inability to do the same old thing.
Who knows? We have his amazing sounds and performances to listen to while we wait to find out.