Artist: Robert Randolph & The Family Band
Album: Brighter Days
In Brief: You know what you’re listening to these guys for – explosive pedal steer guitar playing, feel-good Gospel, soul and funk choruses, and the occasional chill slow jam. Don’t go in expecting anything profound from the lyrics – in fact, pay no attention to them all if you like! – and you’ll probably have a blast.
Is Robert Randolph & The Family Band a Gospel group? I’ve never really thought that much about this question until now, despite having listened to every album the band has put out since I got on board with 2006’s Colorblind. Like a lot of bands with Christian roots that don’t play exclusively to Christian audiences, it was pretty easy to pick up on the religious references in their lyrics, and obviously the origin of their “sacred steel” sound had its roots in African-American churches. But they were sort of the inverse of most Christian rock bands, in the sense that instead of simply taking a popular mainstream style and tacking Christian lyrics onto it, they were taking a well-respected musical tradition typically heard in church and tacking on whatever lyrics they felt like, some religious, some socially conscious, and some almost nonsensical with no apparent attempt other than to bring people together and have a huge party. I’ve described their music variously over the years as funk/rock, blues rock, jam band, maybe even R&B in a few cases, and the Gospel influence was always obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever considered them primarily a Gospel act.
I don’t bring this up because how one categorizes the band changes my decision to listen to them in any way, but rather because their newest record, Brighter Days, seems to have the heaviest concentration of Gospel-oriented lyrics out of anything they’ve done since their 2010 covers album We Walk This Road. It’s an aspect of their sound that has always been there, but this time around it seems they feel no need to beat around the bush in terms of their beliefs. Since those beliefs, as stated in these songs, mostly seem to revolve around the personal pursuit of redemption, and a welcoming “Love God, love others, then do what you please” sort of attitude, I don’t expect this to be a major issue for most casual listeners, especially when you consider that lyrics have always been a secondary consideration with this band anyway. That’s not to say they’ve never had anything important to express or that their lyrics are unintelligent; it’s more that these guys seem to jam first and then figure out what to sing along with it later, and it’s mostly the choruses that are going to rub off on the listener. Lyrics for most of their songs can’t even be found online – I’ve search and I’ve come up short. That tells me that they likely still aren’t printing ’em in the liner notes, and listeners aren’t making it a priority to type ’em up for folks like me who would actually bother to Google ’em. The fans show up to hear Robert let ‘er rip on the old lap steel – which he does with gusto here as on every record the band has put out – while the rest of his band, most of which are people he is actually related to, provide spirited rhythms and backing vocals. If you’ve come to pick apart lyrics, you’re probably in the wrong place. (Not that I won’t try in the song-by-song, but I’ll admit there won’t be much point to it other than admitting my bafflement at some of Randolph’s odd word choices.) Just sing along to the part you can actually remember, and don’t sweat the rest too much.
I haven’t written much about the string of albums between Colorblind and now because there honestly hasn’t been a whole lot to say. Nothing else has hit me nearly as hard as their breakout single “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That” or the sexy R&B ballad “Angels” from that record. We Walk This Road was a bit subdued for my tastes, but 2013’s Lickety Split and 2017’s Got Soul mostly followed the expected template, sporting a few standout jams (“New Orleans”, “Lovesick”), some admirable if not terribly profound attempts at social commentary (“Welcome Home”, “Gonna Be Alright”), and a few face-palmingly bad lowlights (I seem to recall “Find a Way” being rather inane, and “Blacky Joe” might be the worst thing this band has ever recorded). Most of the rest was fun but forgettable – the the basic building blocks of the eight-to-ten minute jams they would expand them into in concert, destined to be swapped out with similar offerings from the next album every few years. I can’t really say that Brighter Days is all that different, either – it just seems to hit the mark a little more often, and it turns out to be the most consistently enjoyable set of songs they’ve put out in over a decade. It has a good amount of variance, thanks to the group’s broad range of musical influences and the occasional appearance of Robert’s sister Lenesha Randolph on lead vocals, but it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and it finishes incredibly strong. That’s why I feel compelled to do a deeper dive on this album, when I didn’t bother for the last few.
(Well… that and a startlingly tone-deaf cover choice that might give their worst material from past albums a run for its money. Probably the lone thing dragging this album down and keeping it from being worthy of a B or even a B plus. But we’ll get to that soon enough.)
1. Baptise Me
Even though this is more of a mid-tempo jam than the high-energy stuff the Family Band usually opens their albums with, I’d say pretty much everything they’re good at is represented here. Robert Randolph proves himself adept at establishing a strong, melodic central riff on his steel guitar, while the rhythm section keeps the groove tight, and he gets a few opportunities farther in for white-hot solos – the kind you likely wouldn’t see coming based on the initial mood of the song. Lyrically, the band is quite upfront with the religious talk, as you might guess from the title, though it’s looking inward, at a man’s own sins, regrets, and weariness, and pleading with God to cleanse him of all of this. I don’t think the band is under any illusion that they’re aiming for complex poetry here, as Robert acknowledges the story we’ve all heard before, yet that is still very personal to him, in the second verse: “I’m the son of a preacher man, a small-town cliche. I never learned the devil’s tongue, what else can I say?” He delivers it with just enough grit that it fits with the somewhat grimy guitar sound, and the joy of being cleansed is apparent in the group vocals on the chorus. So the music matches the mood of the lyrics quite nicely. I didn’t think much of this one when I first heard it, but I’ve come to realize it’s a great album opener, in terms of how it serves the purpose of introducing (or re-introducing) us to the band’s overall attitude – which is reverent and yet feisty at the same time.
2. Don’t Fight It
This galloping song is like a lot of Randolph jams – basically an excuse to get the audience out of their seat and dancing. It’s pretty easy to picture a huge, riotous revival going down as the jumpy riffs and percussion keep rattling along, and the group reminds us over and over not to fight that “holy ghost power”. (Maybe it’s just due to that weird, Charismatic phase I went through in my teen years, but I’m half-expecting someone to get “slain in the spirit” at any moment now.) The band pulls an age-old trick midway through the song, where they slow down the rhythm considerably for a fun little vamp (I’m not sure how “If you want some lovin’, taste the biscuits in the oven, that’s the recipe!” works as a metaphor for the Holy Ghost, but it seems deliberately goofy because the band knows they’re just here to have a good time, so I’ll give it a pass) and then gradually speed it back up again, before bringing the chorus back for a roaring reprise. I’m often reminded of the Saturday Night Live sketch “What’s Up With That?” when I hear this sort of thing, but of course that sketch is making fun of a tactic employed by church musicians and secular performers alike throughout the decades, so of course that really shouldn’t be my only reference point. Unlike a joke dragged out far too long for its own good, the band knows how to keep this one to a tight three and a half minutes, despite the musical ground they cover here.
3. Simple Man
So here’s the ill-advised cover song. Originally, this was a country song written by Charlie Daniels several decades ago. Definitely not the first time the band has attempted an unexpected, out-of-genre cover, and they actually do quite well with it on a musical level, giving it a mellow, bluesy groove, the kind of thing that tells you a wise sage is about to impart some world-weary knowledge directly to your ears. It’s a nice change of pace. But these lyrics are just… YIKES. Robert, channeling Mr. Daniels from all those years ago, is mad as hell about all the violence and corruption in the world, and like many a “thoughts and prayers”-prescribing lawmaker nowadays, he chalks the problem up to this: “Tell you what’s wrong in the world today/People done gone and put their Bibles away.” I’m already turned off right there, because lecturing people about reading their Bibles seems a bit shortsighted when we’ve seen plenty of examples of corruption from Christian leaders who ought to know the book backwards and forwards – we did in the era the song was first written, and we certainly do now. But the advice from the Bible that the song chooses to drop on us is: “Good Book says, I know it’s true/Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And I can’t think of a more glaring example of someone quoting a Bible passage without context to suit their own whims. In this case, those whims are for vigilante justice – something which is made far more explicit in the original version, which Randolph and co. gloss over by skipping several verses of the song. Basically Mr. Daniels would have been quite happy just tying up all those thieves and murderers and dropping them off in a swamp to let God’s creatures sort ’em all out. Due to the feel-good vibe Randolph seems to want to maintain, he stops short of repeating the vast majority of those lyrics. (He also changes the lyric “Call me a redneck, I guess I am” to “Call me a square, I guess I am”, which I suppose is reasonable, since Black dudes from New Jersey don’t typically self-identify as rednecks.) What that leaves us with is a song loaded with unfortunate implications about how the simple act of reading a specific passage from a book, one that can be so easily taken out of context as an excuse to seek revenge, is somehow going to solve society’s woes. Look, I’m a Christian. I understand that the context of that “eye for an eye” passage in the Old Testament was originally meant to ensure that people didn’t seek more retribution than what was fair and equal for the injustice committed against them. I also understand that there was a dude in the New Testament whose advice on the subject of violence leaned more toward pacifism, what with the whole “turn the other cheek” thing. Now you could say that’s just my interpretation, but at least some of us have put more thought into it than just tanking a single line away from its surrounding context and the history of the society for which is was initially written. That’s where the bragging about being a “simple man” comes into play. It’s that whole trope where a guy asserts that being folksy, down-to-earth, and not too big on book learnin’ is somehow a virtue, and he could know next to nothing, but he knows this one thing that is super important. Seems to me that a little more time spent with that book you’re touting the virtues of might lead you to be a little more cautious with the advice you’re doling out to society in general. I realize that I’ve gone off on an insanely long rant about this song, which Randolph himself didn’t write, but its inclusion here begs the question of why the band thought this was a relevant song to cover here and now in 2019, when gun violence from vigilantes and trigger-happy law enforcement alike is cutting short alarming numbers of American lives, and especially when Black Americans are disproportionately affected by this crisis. When you look at it through that lens, it’s downright irresponsible. Anyway, rant over. I’m relieved to say that this is the only glaring misstep on an otherwise very entertaining record.
4. Have Mercy
Thankfully the laid-back Gospel tune that follows is a much more soothing one. It’s in 6/8 time, with some nice use of the Hammond Organ, piano, and the slide guitar for texture. The chord changes are probably what sells it for me – they’ve got the richness of a hymn and smooth R&B tune all rolled into one. Robert and his sister Lenesha trade off lead vocals here, as they beg God for a reprieve from whatever hard things they’re going through. These lyrics might not be terribly deep or even all that specific, but their broad nature makes it easy to fill in the blanks with your own struggles. I critique a lot of Christian music for being that broad, but in this song it seems to work, because it really feels like we’re having church and we all need to find that common ground in order to feel more like a community. I can imagine an actual choir doing a bang-up job with an arrangement of this one – though of course they’d be lacking the signature slide guitar, which might back off a bit for the first few minutes of the song, but which comes back incredibly strong during a climactic solo near the end.
5. Cut Em Loose
Here the band shows us a bit more rock influence – Robert’s slide guitar seems more edgy and menacing than usual, and I think there’s also a distorted electric guitar riffing alongside him. That gives the song a “dirty” feel that complements the funk-influenced groove. This is the first song on the album where the lyrical themes don’t appear to be religious – though I’ll admit I’m at a bit of a loss here because they keep telling me to cut someone or something loose, and I’m not clear on what it is. The verses to this one are a weird bag of mixed metaphors, trying to tell the listener how to bake an apple pie without overdoing it on the ingredients, but then suddenly it switches to berries and I’m left a bit confused. Robert is at his most frustratingly vague here: “You can have a handful/A few more than a few/But if you’re wanting more/You know you got to cut em loose.”
Who or what is being cut loose, exactly? Is this some sort of a vague lesson about not taking an excessive amount of whatever resources are available to you, so that there’s an enough for everyone? Eh… maybe I should just shut up and listen to Randolph’s killer solo. There always seems to be one. But we’re back to a rather repetitive chorus after that, and the repetitive choruses that bug me the most tend to be the ones that mull over the same lyrical idea ad nauseum without shedding any real light on what it might actually mean. Maybe it’s just a cultural catch phrase that I happen to be unfamiliar with? Wouldn’t be the first time.
6. Second Hand Man
The Family Band really brings the funk on this one. I’m immediately transported back to the 70s, with mental images of big afros and floral prints and bell bottoms and every other cliche in the book. (I don’t mind this at all, for the record.) They’ve mined this genre for entertainment value many times before, of course, but here, the piano and the wah-wah effects are especially effective. Randolph seems to be playing the role of a man who flies by the seat of his pants, doesn’t really have much of a plan for life, and keeps things as low-commitment as possible with the ladies. The implication behind the phrase “Second hand man” seems to be that he’s used to being some girl’s side piece, and that all the sneaking around behind the backs of other men is eventually going to catch up to him. Not having verifiable lyrics anywhere is rather frustrating, since it sounds like the chorus shifts to call this guy a “dumb-ass man” in several places, which if true, makes it the most amusing lyric on the record, as I’m not used to even mild swears from these guys. I really love the dueling piano/slide guitar in the bridge, too. For just about every song I could say “insert awesome slide guitar solo” here, but it’s notable that Robert gives his bandmates room to riff off of what he’s doing as well. This song wins me over by sheer mood alone, even if I’ll confess I’m only taking the wildest of guesses at its meaning or what the heck it has to do with the rest of the record.
7. Cry Over Me
Here we settle down for another pair of mellower songs, before the band ramps things up for a big finish with the last two tracks. This one appears to be a breakup ballad, with Lenesha on lead vocals for the entire duration of the song. She’s reminiscing about a relationship where they apparently partied hard and got real close real fast – the phrase “Used to drink each other to sleep” comes up, indicating that they had a lot of fun together but it wasn’t necessarily the healthiest kind of fun. At this point, she’s remembering the good times, but she wants to move on, and that means physically, as in she’s relocated to another state. In the chorus she tells the guy he can cry over her and try to drag her back to Georgia all she wants, but it ultimately isn’t gonna change her mind. Robert, for his part, seems pretty laid-back throughout most of this song, letting his sister be the star of the show. But in the final minutes, he unleashes a solo that steadily gets more and more intense, which puts a nice little exclamation point on an otherwise subdued song.
8. I Need You
Well, not all of the smooth ballads can be winners. This one turns out to be rather tepid, going for a mellow, churchy feel in the same vein as “Have Mercy”, but coming across mostly as nondescript Gospel-lite. Aside from the presence of Robert’s steel guitar, I wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from any number of attempted Gospel-pop crossovers that pull from the weakest elements of both genres, rather than confidently being one or the other. The lyrics try to be meaningful but turn our to be rather innocuous. It’s an earnestly written prayer about how thirsty the singers are for God’s love, but it only piles more and more cliches on top of the painfully bland central metaphor, “Oh, I need you, like a flower needs the rain”. I guess I’d rather listen to this track than “Simple Man”, if forced to choose. But I’m getting
a bad “Accidentally flipped over to TBN in the middle of a pledge drive” sort of vibe here.
9. I’m Living Off the Love You Give
We’re back in rock mode here for another jam-oriented track – the kind that the band could easily tear it up with at a festival, but that probably wouldn’t stand out much from a lot of the other songs they played during the same set when all is said and done. I think there’s an electric guitar assisting Robert’s lap steel again, but it’s not as distorted here as it was on “Cut Em Loose”. They lay on the cliches about needing someone’s love like life itself once again here: “If you take your love from me/It will be like murder in the first degree.” It’s still not terribly inspired in the lyrics department, but this time around it feels like more of a silly love song and not so much a religious song, and I have more tolerance for lyrical fluff when it’s about fickle humans and our imperfect ability to love one another, I guess. Just when I find myself fixating too much on the lack of lyrical innovation, along comes another frenetic solo to save the day! That’s the saving grace of a lot of this band’s songs, if I’m honest.
10. Strange Train
This Southern-fried stomp is a fun way to end the record. It’s a great blend of funk, rockabilly, and Gospel influence, to make sure the band closes things out on a high note. The lyrics here might as well be “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That 2.0”, what with the band chanting “Hey, you, catch that strange train!” and emphasizing that those who have been cast off as weird or crazy are 100% welcome here. Cheesy as it is, it’s hard to say no to such a positive, welcoming message. (Despite the band’s religious overtones, I like that they lean toward the inclusive rather than the judgmental most of the time.) Granted, the band’s understanding of what makes a person a weirdo that mainstream society doesn’t understand doesn’t go much deeper than having dreads and loving the Grateful Dead. But I’m beating a dead horse here. These lyrics are just a placeholder, something for the band to do while they work their way up to another fun breakdown followed by a fiery series of solos. The template here is more or less the same as “Don’t Fight It”, in terms of how they change up the tempo and then gradually build up to a big finish, but this is the track where they really go for broke, determined to bring the house down. I feel like the band made a conscious effort with some of these songs to keep in the abrupt changes and extended vamps that might otherwise only get heard in concert, but without dragging each performance out to 8-10 minutes like they might do with an actual audience present. It gives you just enough of a taste to determine whether experiencing them live is something you’ll want to put on your bucket list – and if so, expect this track to be even more of a barn-burner than it is here on the album! (True story: I was playing this one at home while did some work around the house, and my 3-year old understood enough of what she was hearing to grab one of her toy electric guitars and pretend to jam along. Moments like that make my heart sing, and you made it all possible, Robert Randolph!) While the lyrics to this closing track might not be specifically religious, they celebrate community and inclusivity, and when I can tell the point is for everyone present to feel seen and feel special, that’s when I feel like a band has just taken me to church.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Baptise Me $1.50
Don’t Fight It $1.25
Simple Man -$.50
Have Mercy $1.25
Cut Em Loose $.50
Second Hand Man $1.25
Cry Over Me $1
I Need You $0
I’m Living Off the Love You Give $.75
Strange Train $1.50
Robert Randolph: Lead vocals, pedal steel guitar
Marcus Randolph: Drums, backing vocals
Lenesha Randolph: Lead and backing vocals
Danyel Morgan: Bass
Brett Haas: Electric guitar
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: