A decade ago, Robert Randolph made sacred steel cool. Or, rather, it was always cool, but he introduced it to a generation that might have been previously unaware of its existence.
Now Randolph is paying tribute to some legends of the guitar style that developed in Pentecostal churches in the 1930s by plucking four of its most renowned players – Chuck and Darick Campbell, Aubrey Ghent and Atlanta resident Calvin Cooke – all of whom have spent most of their lives playing in the Church of the Living God.
The resulting album, “Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers,” is a musically searing, uplifting collection of 11 songs coated with the unmistakable whine of the steel guitar and monstrous riffs from the collective (though, oddly, there isn’t one song that includes all of them).
From the moment that the Campbell brothers (along with their other musical siblings Phil and Carlton) blast through the Allman Brothers’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” with Cooke on vocals, it’s apparent that this will be one rip-roaring ride.
The group deftly retains the core elements of the songs they cover – evoking Duane Allman’s deliberate phrasing on “Wonderin’,” and steamrolling through the traditional “Motherless Children” with the same verve as Eric Clapton – and also makes some interesting choices.
“My Sweet Lord,” featuring Jimmy Carter of The Blind Boys of Alabama on vocals, is a six-minute-plus stroll through George Harrison’s layered ballad, here injected with newfound tang – and twang.
And then there is the re-imagining of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” which, like the electro-pop version, builds slowly – but this time into an organ-and-bass-drenched spiritual. Robert Randolph and his brother Marcus guest on steel guitar, while Shemekia Copeland wails with unfettered passion.
But among the gospel numbers (“No Cheap Seats in Heaven”) and blues nods (Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying”) is Cooke’s original “Help Me Make it Through,” a clip-clopping blues rocker that balances Cooke’s robust vocals with his nimble guitar playing.