FRIDAYS UPDATE- Steel yourself: Lee Boys funk up gospel
When the Lee Boys take the stage at Fridays After Five this week, revelers will be hearing the sounds of decades of history. They're descended from a tradition of pedal-steel guitar playing called "Sacred Steel," in which the instrument is elevated to center stage, taking the place of the gospel organ.
"With country or Hawaiian music, the steel is not the focal instrument," explains Lee Boys guitarist and de-facto bandleader Alvin Lee. "We play it with a lot of soul. It's bluesier. That's what sets us apart."
But the history is also personal for the family band. "We've been playing this style of music all our lives," says Lee, who started with piano lessons and the school band around second grade. "My father was a steel player, so we kind of took to the tradition."
But in 2000, after laying the groundwork for his musical family, Lee's father– and then his brother– passed away. Both were steel players
The second loss hit Lee especially hard, both emotionally and musically. "When we played in the church after he passed, I would always feel real bad," he says. "It was hard."
That's what inspired him to pull the Lee Boys band together and take the music elsewhere– in part because of the memories, but also to show off his brother's legacy. "I want to show the world something that me and my brother formed," he says.
His particular niche of gospel music isn't the most marketable, but Lee says interest is growing because of his willingness to venture into other styles. "As this music gets more and more known, we're getting people who are going back and learning the history," he says. "We were acting like the rebels, throwing in stuff that was a little more bluesy or funky or a little more secular." Alvin, 43, listens to a lot of '80s music, and the band's featured steel player is 24-year-old Roosevelt Collier, who's also into hip-hop and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Foremost among the rebels, however, is Red Light Management artist Robert Randolph, the biggest success story to come out of the sacred steel world. Lee says Randolph's success changed the game for everyone else.
"Robert Randolph definitely put the sacred steel on the map," says Lee. "We give Robert a lot of credit for taking this style out to the masses; he opened up opportunities."
But even more than Randolph– who has recently moved into rock and pop and has seen tremendous success on the jamband circuit– the Lee Boys intend to stay focused on their church tradition. "We just kind of fuse some blues and funk and some different tunes that are more known to the secular world, but it's still gospel-based music, and we're not losing that spirituality," he says, "You can tell it's church-based music."
Still, mainstream appeal isn't out of the question. "If we can touch more people through our music," says Lee, "then our mission is done."
Thanks to bands like Lee's and Randolph's, that's starting to happen. "The music just can't be denied anymore," Lee says.
The Lee Boys perform at Fridays After Five at the pavilion downtown on May 30 (free) and then again at the Outback Lodge at 10pm for $10.