I got be a fly on the wall last summer when Robert Randolph, the secret weapon of this would-be supergroup, sat in with a half-dozen country and sacred steel guitarists at an impromptu jam session held in a Nashville warehouse. Then just 22, the New Jersey native wasn’t the most accomplished steel player in the room; that distinction went to his hero Chuck Campbell, a sacred steel guitarist of staggering emotional and technical reach.
Nevertheless, coaxing run after unearthly, rapid-fire run from the pedals and strings of his guitar — and not just with his feet and fingers, but with his chin and tongue as well — Randolph was already channeling the pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’ll be no stopping him once he discovers noise avatar Sonny Sharrock and starts raining down beauty and chaos from on high.
Not that you’d suspect as much from most of this noodlefest with keyboardist John Medeski (of the improv troupe Medeski, Martin & Wood) and the bluesy North Mississippi All Stars. The Word isn’t a bad album, mind you, just underwhelming; none of it is as inspired as any of the sacred steel recordings on Arhoolie. Fully half of what’s here smacks of warmed-over Allman Brothers, at times veering perilously close to dreaded jam-band territory. And it certainly doesn’t help that this clutch of hymns is divorced from its context in black Pentecostal worship, where musicians and members of the congregation feed off each other’s energy while abandoning themselves to the pull of the spirit. The All Stars’ rhythm section is also a problem; by turns tentative and lumbering, it rarely locks into a groove that might take Randolph or slide guitarist Luther Dickinson, much less the rest of us, higher.
That said, the vamping funk of “Waiting On My Wings” — equal parts Electric Ladyland and the Mahavishnu Orchestra — will almost take you there, with Medeski stepping out front some and Randolph and Dickinson flying circles around each other like Dickey and Duane at the Fillmore East. The brooding, dirty-toned “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” likewise lives up to its title, while the gentle lyricism and quiet dignity of “I Shall Not Be Moved” would have put a smile on Mississippi John Hurt’s radiant face.
The rest of the time, though, Randolph sounds like he’s just itching to fly away, if only he could get a lift from the rest of his crew. And maybe he will next time, since there are already rumors of a follow-up record. But for now, the best thing the young lion could do would be to take his earthbound brothers to church.