A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 25, 2005
I’ve said it before. If any church around here played music as exhilarating and wonderful as that found on the album Sacred Steel Instrumentals, I’d go to church. It’s loud, lively, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes crazy -- and I can’t imagine anyone sitting quietly in their pews while it’s being played. It’s rock ‘n’ roll in everything but name.
Fortunately for me, there are no House of God congregations in Santa Fe, so I’m off the hook.
The House of God, for those who have not been touched by the spirit of sacred steel, is an African- American Pentecostal denomination where the music originated in the 1930s.
Florida is where some of the most revered sacred steel players come from -- though probably the best known, Robert Randolph, learned to play steel guitar at a House of God church in New Jersey.
The steel guitar -- yes that wonderful instrument that puts the cry in the best cry-in-your-beer country songs -- is the main instrument of sacred steel. The old-fashioned lap steel, then later the amplified pedal steel became popular in House of God congregations that couldn’t afford an organ or piano.
Like some arcane religious mystery, sacred steel stayed a virtual House of God secret for some 60 years, unknown to most to most of the outside world until about 10 years when Arhoolie Records began releasing sacred steel albums.
This record is a compilation featuring cuts from previous Arhoolie compilations and CDs by noted masters like The Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent and Sonny Treadway.
I have the feeling that Arhoolie compiled this one with the neophyte in mind. Thus there are many familiar titles among the selections -- “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” (performed here by Ghent) “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” (by Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett) “When the Saints Go Marching In” (by Willie Eason), “Down by the Riverside” (done by The Campbell Brothers as part of a medley.)
But even these are well-worn tunes, these guys play them as if they were fresh revelations. If you haven’t heard sacred steel before, you’ll be amazed at the power still in them.
Though I love the wild hip-shakin’ songs, some of my favorite ones here are slow and meditative. That’s the case with “End of My Journey” by The Campbell Brothers.
Meanwhile, Robert Randolph’s “Without God” starts off that way, but nearly four minutes into it, he and the band erupt into a righteous frenzy. (Randolph walks in two musical worlds -- his sacred steel church music and his rocking “secular steel,” which has become a hit with the jam-band crowd.)
So much contemporary gospel music is just as overproduced, stale and bloodless as hot new country or lite jazz. Sacred steel, by contrast is rootsy, soulful and live. And one healthy sign is that while some of the sacred-steel icons are getting up in age, others, like Randolph, Rayfield “Ray Ray” Holloman and Lamar Nelson, are in their early 20s. (Holloman was 16 when he recorded “I Need Thee,” included here.)
I just hope Arhoolie keeps it up, making sure there’s plenty of new sacred steel available.
*Livin’ With the Blues by Vassar Clements. Although the fiddle was an integral part of jug bands and string bands that were early manifestations of what we now call “blues,” the instrument has been rare in blues as we‘ve known it for the past 50 years or more. With but a few exceptions -- Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Papa John Creach --you just don’t here the fiddle in blues.
But that didn’t stop veteran fiddler Clements from putting together a classy album of blues-based material.
It’s not surprising that he would record a blues album. Clements, who started out more than 50 years ago with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, long ago slipped the surly bonds of bluegrass. He’s used the phrase “hillbilly jazz” in a couple of albums and called another one Backporch Swing.
And longtime Clements fans know that the blues seeped into his bow years ago. Listen to his playing on The Grateful Dead‘s “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo” or on “Trail of the Buffalo” with the hippie-grass super group Old and In the Way.
So Clements sounds right at home on this new album collaborating with the likes of Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Maria Muldaur, Norton Buffalo and Roy Rogers playing songs by Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red.
Almost all the instruments here are acoustic. The credits make special note that Rogers plays an “amplified Martin guitar” on “Phonograph Blues.”
But it’s not just country blues covered here. The material ranges from the New Orleans style of “Mambo Boogie” (Dave Matthews -- no not that Dave Matthews plays piano) to a hillbilly-soul cover of Booker T’s signature “Green Onions,” featuring Musselwhite on harmonica.
Some of favorites here are the ones sung by Muldaur, whose voice has only gotten richer since her early ‘70s “Midnight at the Oasis” heyday. She belts out “Honey Babe Blues” and one called “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.”
Then there’s the contributions of Bishop, who rose to fame in the ’70s with songs like “Stealin’ Watermelons” and “Struttin’ My Stuff.“ In case you’d forgotten how much fun Bishop is, check out “Dirty Drawers” and the cool funky “That’s My Thing” from this record.
*Rise by Eddie Turner. Fans of bluesman Otis Taylor should be familiar with Turner's psychedelic guitar. Turner along with bassist Kenny Passarelli, formed the backbone of Taylor’s band on all his albums.
All but the last one, that is. For reasons of which I’m not sure, Taylor didn’t use his longtime sidemen for last year’s Double V. And as far as I’m concerned, the album suffered for it.
But Turner and Passarelli are together on Turner’s new solo album.
This album is crawling with Santa Fe musicians. It’s produced by Passarelli (a longtime Santa Fe resident, who also plays bass and keyboards), Mark Clark plays drums, Alex Maryol makes a guest appearance. And the whole shebang was recorded at Stepbridge Studios.
Rise doesn’t rise to the intensity of Turner’s best work with Taylor. Turner’s an amazing picker, but he’s no match for Otis as a lyricist or singer.
Still, the album is a worthy. Turner and crew take their music seriously and the result is truly innovative blues.
Some of my favorites here are instrumentals. “Resurrection,” for instance, features Turner dueling with himself, slide guitar vs. electric guitar. It almost could be described as a shorter, more downhome version of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”
“The River” is a guitar boogie featuring Turner and Maryol that through the magic of tape loops keeps adding more layers.
Other notable tunes are “Confusion Illusion,” the closest thing here to a protest song (and Passarelli plays a mean, jazzy organ here) and “Sin” which could almost be described as a psychedelic spiritual. It’s almost a capella, except the guitar and organ rumbling in the background.
And speaking of psychedelic, Turner just might have saved his best for the last here with “Secret.” With revved-up, trip hoppy percussion ghostly vocal parts fade in and out.
The free world really didn’t really need another cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” And the same thing could be said of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love,” except that Turner’s take on it is such a good-time rollick, it’s worth it.