Hallelujah! We Walk This Road is the album we’ve been waiting for from Robert Randolph and the Family Band ever since the beginning.
2001’s The Word – the gospel-inspired supergroup album recorded by John Medeski, the North Mississippi Allstars and a then-unknown Randolph – was the jam world’s introduction to the world of Sacred Steel music. Later that year, Live at the Wetlands captured some of the energy of Randolph’s live show with his own Family Band, and we’ve seen two studio albums since.
The problem is, though the Family Band efforts have never lacked for energy, the vibe that infused The Word seemed to elude their grasp. The fact of the matter was that some of Randolph’s most interesting work of the decade was as a sideman with others (pick a sit-in: his 7/6/02 appearance with String Cheese at Red Rocks on “Hotel Window” will break your heart, for instance) while it seemed he and the Family Band were trying to find their voice. (Or live up to somebody _else_’s interpretation of what their voice should be.) We Walk This Road is proof that Robert Randolph and the Family Band knew who they were all along – they just needed the right setting to be who they were. The album is more than just a return to Randolph’s Sacred Steel roots; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of those roots – an I’m-cool-with-who-I-am sort of thing – and applying them to the task at hand.
Producer T Bone Burnett deserves much credit for striking the balance between being a strong guiding hand and knowing when to step back and say, “You know what you feel – play it.” (Maybe the most important guidance he provided was leading Randolph back towards where he came from.) Burnett contributed hugely to the song selection on We Walk This Road, digging up archival recordings from the 20s and 30s to inspire Randolph and company. In fact, there are several snippets of some of those originals sprinkled throughout the album, giving reference to the traditional roots of songs like “Traveling Shoes” or “Dry Bones”. In the case of “If I Had My Way”, a recording of Blind Willie Johnson from 80-something years ago sets the mood; Randolph and the Family Band (along with buds Jim Keltner on drums and Ben Harper on slide guitar and vocals) take things from there with an infectious greasy groove. And therein lies the big difference between this album and some of Randolph’s past work with the Family Band: frenetically-paced rave-ups are one thing, but if you want to get down – get down – to the rump-swaying, shoulder-dipping, head-bopping core of things, then you need THE GROOVE … and that’s got nothing to do with speed, baby. It’s all in the motion.
And We Walk This Road has got the motion, my friends. Have mercy!
Other inspirations came from sources more recent: the band (with a cameo from Doyle Bramhall on guitar and vocals) takes on John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama,” nailing the song’s feeling of back-to-the-wall desperation, while Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk” is nothing but a hand-clapping, sing-together good time. Dylan’s “Shot of Love” feels tailor-made for Randolph and company, the pedal steel snaking and wailing its way around the words of Bob. Hip-Hop soulman Will Gray earns his stripes as an honorary Family Band member, contributing two tunes – “Don’t Change” and “Back To The Wall” – with a way-cool vocal performance on the latter. In the meantime, new songs like “I’m Not Listening” hold their own in spirit, groove, vibe against the rest of the album; the fact is, without checking the credits, you’d be hard-pressed to identify who wrote what on We Walk This Road – or even what decade (or century) they came from. By the time Robert Randolph and the Family Band are done, they own ‘em all.