'Sacred steel' headlines Flood City Music Festival

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 7:50 p.m.

Strange ironies abound in pop music. But “irony” doesn't begin to describe the odd career of Robert Randolph.

Growing up, Randolph wasn't allowed to listen to pop music. Or hip-hop, R&B, rock and roll, or, really, anything that wasn't religious. He grew up in a tight-knit Pentecostal church, the House of God, playing “sacred steel” guitar in the church's band.

Eventually, he discovered the vast continents of music that exist outside the church. But it was that old, insular “sacred steel” music and the pedal steel guitar that made him a star.

Now, Robert Randolph & the Family Band play energetic gospel-inflected funk and soul — with a side of Allman Brothers-style improvisational blues-rock — all over the world. They've shared stages and studios with the likes of Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews — even composing a theme song for the NBA's telecasts on ABC.

They're also headlining the Flood City Music Festival (formerly known as the Johnstown Folkfest, among other things) this weekend. Other high-profile national acts on the bill include Greensky Bluegrass, Chuck Prophet, and Bonerama.

“I'd say it's a mixture of Stevie Ray Vaughn, the gospel and rock 'n' roll feel of Ray Charles, and the energy of ... I don't even know,” laughs Randolph, stretching for a way to describe his music.

“That's kind of from my background, growing up in church, where music was like this big rock 'n' roll show. We were all about singing and dancing. Everybody singing together and interacting and having the music bring about this joyous feeling. It was always about this sense of togetherness. We're the band, but we're also the audience.”

The pedal steel guitar is played while seated, though Randolph is known for kicking over his for impromptu dance lessons when the spirit moves him.

The sacred steel tradition thrived for decades in Pentecostal African-American congregations all over the country without outsiders noticing. It wasn't until the late '90s that writer/musicologist Robert Stone “discovered” the music. Still, for most listeners, Robert Randolph and the Family Band are their first exposure.

“It's been going on since the '20s,” Randolph says. “It's our brand of church music, since my great-grandmother's time. Steel guitar is the main instrument, instead of the organ or piano. The steel guitar was mostly just used in country music or Hawaiian music.”

Sharing the music outside the church was forbidden.

“They called me the devil,” Randolph says. “We come from a very old-time church. Not only were we told to keep it in church, but not to go to any other people's churches.”

Randolph wasn't satisfied with this, and knew he was taking some risks.

“I was younger and rebellious, and knew there was more to the story,” he says. “As Bob Stone started to tell the story of this music, articles started to be written about this. We'd get copies of the articles, and I kind of knew, as a young kid, that there was much more to what was going on than we were accustomed to in church.

“I just started to take it outside of church. We started to play bars in New York City. In the year 2000, there was the first Sacred Steel convention, all the players from my church got together. ... This was the first time we played in front of white people.”

Now, in yet another strange irony, the crowds that tend to show up to see Robert Randolph and the Family Band are almost entirely white.

“A lot of the black audience only goes to certain types of shows,” Randolph says. “I know plenty of black folks who enjoy it. Rock and blues music isn't marketed to that sort of audience. But when they discover it, they like it.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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