Robert Randolph, possibly the least known, locally, of the performers at this year's Russian River Blues Festival, may turn out to be its most thrilling. Performing on pedal steel guitar, his multi-genre improvisations travel through gospel, funk, rock and blues with an intensity and spirituality that few artists attain.
Born in the late 1970s in New Jersey—and raised in the House of God Church by a minister mother and deacon father—Randolph's early history reflects the traditional dichotomy between gospel and blues music, the paradigm being that gospel, originating in the church, is "good," and blues, originating in juke joints and honky-tonks, is "bad." Growing up, he was allowed to listen only to modern Christian and gospel music. Randolph began skipping school to hang out in the streets, gambling and selling drugs, until the shooting death of a close friend turned his focus back to his roots in the church and the guitar he had began playing at age 15.
Steel guitar has been a key element in church services since the 1930s, partly because organs were often unaffordable. Pedal steel was introduced in the '70s. Randolph absorbed the styles and techniques of older performers at church, but after attending a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert as a 19-year-old, he felt inspired to take traditional pedal steel in a new direction. Despite confrontations with church elders who disapproved of taking this music out of the church, Randolph came to believe that church and secular music could co-exist.
By 2000, his sold-out shows in large Eastern cities led to a recording contract with Warner Brothers. In 2003, Randolph won a W.C. Handy Award (currently called a Blues Music Award) for Best New Artist Debut, and performed at the Grammy Awards. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine included him on its "100 Greatest Guitarists" list at No. 97.
Randolph aims to be hopeful and uplifting while celebrating 100 years of African-American song, going all the way back to the field hollers of Southern sharecroppers. He has intensively studied this music and considers it to be the root of modern sounds and a path to connecting with young people and helping to bridge the gap with their elders.
Randolph will be backed at Johnson's Beach by the Family Band, and that elusive spirit, the transcendence of what's called "sacred steel," will be in full abundance.
Robert Randolph performs on a roster with George Thorogood, Taj Mahal and others at the Russian River Blues Festival on Sunday, Sept. 23, at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. $50–$60. 707.869.1595.