Robert Randolph and the Family Band

December 30

I'm not one to bow my head at the altar of false guitar-god idols. Actually, I'm not one to bow my head at the altar of true guitar-god idols. Hot-shit solos and technical know-how don't do much for me unless they're attached to a song or an emotion or a goofy guy with a funny hat and a stupid mustache. (Yes, it's true: I once dug Primus.) New Jersey-based pedal-steel virtuoso Robert Randolph is, according to many people who'd know better than I, a true guitar god, a title he shows off robustly on Unclassified, he and his Family Band's major-label studio debut. But though the disc ventures a little often into good-time jam-all-night territory for my radio-weaned taste, Randolph drives his signature instrumental voice--a lusciously rounded tone that sounds way too sexed-up for his well-documented background playing at the House of God Church outside Newark--toward such an unfiltered jubilation that his technique sometimes transcends itself; when the whole fam joins in on "I Need More Love"'s hard-groove chorus, you'll gladly give it to 'em. There's even a song or two--the best of which is the acoustic ballad "Smile"--that owes a debt to Stevie Wonder's creamy early-'70s work. Demand Randolph play it at Trees and hear him reach his higher ground.

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