By: David Schultz
Photo by Rinjo Njori.
Photo by Rinjo Njori.
In a year when reunions were all the rage, Robert Randolph, John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars finished 2007 by putting their own spin on the concept by resurrecting their gospel-blues based project known as The Word. The Police, Genesis and Van Halen were the poster boys for the Year of the Reunion Tour, efficiently targeting fiscally solvent fans with nicely staged concerts firmly rooted in the nostalgia of their glory days. In that sense, The Word’s four night swing through the East coast qualifies as a Bizarro reunion. With only one six-year old album under their belt, fans did not flock to New York City’s Terminal 5 this past Thursday to bask in the abundant riches of yesteryear. Rather, they came to see what new tricks this veritable supergroup of the jam scene was capable of performing.
When The Word first assembled in 2000-2001, Robert Randolph was a little known pedal steel guitarist who had been toiling away in the churches of New Jersey. Even though he’d hardly played outside his own chapel, Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars – Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew – were impressed with Randolph’s considerable skills and recruited him to provide the “sacred steel” for their gospel tinged project. Using traditional gospel as their focal point, the quintet imposed their considerably eclectic chops on the music and created an eminently accessible collection of gospel-inflected songs that appealed to the devout with the same fervor as it did to the lapsed.
The Word introduced Robert Randolph to the world; six years later, he’s the most recognizable member of the troupe and for these recent shows he’s been acting as the de facto leader of the band. Despite the improvisational firepower on stage, The Word stayed relatively loyal to the central musical themes. That’s not to say they put on a rigidly formatted show. To a man, they all played loosely. When Randolph piqued everyone’s curiosity with a throwaway riff from The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster,” it just took one look back at Medeski and Luther Dickinson for a seemingly impromptu cover to occur.
A show featuring the five musicians of The Word would be an easy sell in its own right; that they had a body of communal music to work from helped considerably. With Cody Dickinson’s drumming giving a feral bluesy kick to the gospel melodies, The Word played together as if they do it daily. Over the course of the night they updated the songs from their sole self-titled release, offering up groove-heavy renditions of “Joyful Sounds” and “Without God” and soulful offerings of “At The Cross” and “I’ll Fly Away.” They augmented the set with a nice smattering of covers: if they didn’t quite hit the appropriate pounding funk of Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” they nailed the requisite heavy groove on their quick detour through The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” They saved their best cover of the evening for the encore, extending the inspirational motif to embrace Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.”
The show focused on the music and kept theatrics at a minimum. For most of the night, Chris Chew reclined comfortably against the equipment cases next to Cody Dickinson’s drum kit and the ever-excitable Randolph remained primarily rooted to his pedal steel. The two sets consisted almost exclusively of instrumental music. Chew provided the only vocals of the night during a brief New Orleans style run through “Down By The Riverside” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Luther Dickinson would occasionally stroll up to Randolph and engage him in a little give-or-take and Randolph sporadically gave a challenging glance over at Medeski before trading a couple riffs but otherwise the most notable solo was turned in by Cody Dickinson. At the close of “Waiting On My Wings,” Randolph took over on the drums and Dickinson went to town on his decidedly non-ecclesiastical electrified washboard.
For close to three hours, Randolph, Medeski and the NMA turned a set of songs derived from gospel and other inspirational sources into an enthusiastic jam session. Without question, if The Word were the house band at any local house of worship, attendance would go through the roof.
The Word wasn’t the only Randolph affiliated show in the Big Apple that night. On the other side of town, Jason Crosby of Randolph’s Family Band was holding court at the Ace of Clubs. Crosby’s show made for a nice after-hours affair for those intrepid enough to travel across town from Terminal 5. Crosby had his crowd moving with his brand of fusion jazz, danceable funk as well as a couple covers that included a pleasantly tuneful version of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime.”
Crosby will rejoin Randolph & The Family Band in March at this year’s Langerado Festival in Big Cypress, Florida. After a night at Levon Helm’s Woodstock home/studio for one of his Midnight Rambles, Medeski along with Billy Martin and Chris Wood will embark on a late February run of shows before likewise heading down to Langerado where they’ll play with Jon Scofield. The North Mississippi Allstars won’t be at Langerado, but they will be busy. Before lending his skills to the Black Crowes in March, Luther and the Allstars will head out on a comprehensive U.S. tour to coincide with the January 22 release of Hernando.