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Sliding into home: Robert Randolph and the Family Band school the Plaza.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Hot Fun in the Summertime

By Mike Hotter

Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Arrested Development

Empire State Plaza, July 16

I do believe this is a summertime street party.” Pedal-steel-guitar hero Robert Randolph gently but firmly exhorted the crowd, out for the first free Wednesday-evening concert of the season, to stop sitting on their hands and enjoy the perfect summer evening: a nearly full moon in the sky, and two of the most positive bands in popular music pumping out the good vibes from onstage.

Randolph, a favorite on the jam-band circuit for his freewheeling approach to both his guitar and the framework of his songs, brings the passion and zeal of the church to secular funk and blues (which too often can be designated “the blahs” when approached as a method learned by rote). As tight and rocking as the Allman Brothers, the Family Band weren’t there to just prop up Randolph: Bassist Danyel Morgan slapped out vicious solos while singing backup with one of the most startling and self-assured falsetto voices I’ve ever heard. Randolph also had two of his Sacred Steel mentors onstage for the duration, Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent, each of whom were featured throughout on lap steel and backing vocals.

Starting up with a head of steam, Randolph and company tore through the incessant “I Need More Love” before extrapolating into Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Things eased down a bit with Cooke’s version of “Trouble No More,” the one-chord blues vamp enticing for the duration, until Randolph, after a quick allusion to the White Stripes’ “Rag and Bone,” ran offstage to grab a rectangular guitar and lead the band through a stomping tribute to Bo Diddley. Randolph then returned to his pedal steel for the coup de grace, a jam on Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” wherein the stage gradually filled up with ladies invited up from the audience (somewhat disconcertingly, almost all blonde—there were plenty women of darker hues in the audience). No matter, this was what summer in America is all about: sweat, beer, guitars and college-age lovelies shaking their thangs.

As if to chide the proceedings a bit with a reminder of Randolph’s churchly roots, Ghent (whose voice and demeanor were reminiscent of B.B. King) took over for a bit, his take on “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” proving to be one of the highlights of the night. One final jam toward the end quoted Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” which was one Jackson reference too many, before ending with Randolph’s best song, “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” a great mixture of Hendrix and Gnarls Barkley that exorcised the ghost of the Gloved One. Needless to say, Randolph and band rocked the mic right.

Arrested Development pleased with a solid opening set, their Native Tongue-lite aesthetic helping to bridge the all-too-apparent culture gaps of the Dubya years. “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendel” sounded like classics returned from exile, while a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” proved that Speech is a much better singer than he is a rapper. Best of all was the dancing onstage from Sister Eshe and 76-year-old Baba Oje, leaving no excuse for all the wallflowers in the audience with hands in pockets to keep from joining in the festivities.

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