Robert Randolph & The Family Band bring sacred steel to Zoo Tunes

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Robert Randolph has spent much of the last two decades touring and recording with The Family Band (which includes his brother Marcus on drums and sister Lenesha on vocals). Photo provided

Drawing on the decades-old tradition of sacred steel music (the blending of pedal steel guitar with ecstatic gospel music), Robert Randolph is an absolute master of his instrument. He can manipulate the liquid mercury sound of a pedal steel to sound like the joyful cry of a human voice or the roar of a fully amped Les Paul. He’s spent much of the past two decades touring and recording with The Family Band (which includes his brother Marcus on drums and sister Lenesha on vocals), laying down his astonishing solos over stretched-out jam-rock, infectiously danceable funk and, on their most recent album, “Got Soul,” old-school R&B, garnering a legion of fans, critical acclaim, and three Grammy Award nominations.

Randolph and The Family Band will perform on Friday at the next edition of PNC Bank Zoo Tunes, a concert series that takes place inside The Greenville Zoo and has featured Bruce Hornsby, Jason Isbell, and, most recently, Shovels & Rope.

We spoke with Randolph about his early shows in Greenville, his musical roots in the church, and his next album.

You might not have played at the zoo before, but do you remember your past shows in Greenville?

Oh yeah, I remember playing the outdoor festival (Fall for Greenville) and The Handlebar. There’s a great vibe in Greenville; it’s a great musical city. The crowds are great, and my buddy Marcus King is from there, too.

Your live shows are so energetic and celebratory; is it difficult to translate that to a recording studio?

If you look at the musicians I love, like the Grateful Dead and artists like Stevie Wonder, the [Rolling] Stones, [Jimi] Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, look at the way they are live, it’s always different from the recordings. That’s what makes the live experience one thing and recording another. You can try to make the recording with as much energy as you can, but it’s never the same as the live interaction you get with the fans, or the improvisation. Even as a kid growing up in church, the music was based off the energy of each other and connecting with spirit and taking it to another level.

Speaking of church, what was it that moved you about the sacred steel style?

For me, music was always a big part of who I was. It was kind of kept hidden in the American roots-music scene for 80 years, but there was always lap steel playing in our church. And all of the guys playing were my Albert Kings and Robert Johnsons. That’s what I knew. And then I started getting into all kinds of different music as a teenager, and that kind of led me down a different path of trying to meld the two worlds together and come into my own. It was a great feeling and wonderful experience.

You’ve been nominated for three Grammy awards and you’ve performed at the ceremony; what’s the Grammy-night experience like?

It’s just so much fun. You feel like you’re part of your musical peers, seeing so many different artists and performers. It just goes to show that we all appreciate each other, and we all appreciate the music that we made. It was really a good feeling, man. It’s kind of hard to explain what it feels like when you’re there; it’s like you’ve been accepted. We all make music and sing songs, but when that acceptance comes from the people there, it really feels like something special.

It’s been about a year since your last album, “Got Soul,” came out. What’s on the horizon as far as the next album goes?

We’re supposed to start recording in early October. We’ve got some producers lined up and we’re finalizing everything now. It’s going to be a really bluesy rock record, really organic. And we’ve already written like 30 songs. That’s the fun part about being on tour, is that everyone’s there with their musical ideas, you’re on the bus, there are no distractions, you’re up til 2 or 3 in the morning playing guitar and full of ideas. Those late-night drunken ideas are usually the best ones [laughs]!


PNC Bank Zoo Tunes Concert Series featuring Robert Randolph & The Family Band
When: Friday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Greenville Zoo, 150 Cleveland Park Drive
Tickets: $75, $125
Info: https://greenvillezoofoundation.org

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