Style: Bluesy rock/gospel; imagine a cross between Ben Harper, Jimi Hendrix, and the Blind Boys of Alabama
Top tracks: "Shot of Love," "I Still Belong to Jesus," "Dry Bones"
They seem like the ultimate odd couple: One's a renowned producer whose stock in trade is a studious recreation of analog Americana, and who, for the past several years, has only had one speed—sloooooow; the other, a guitar virtuoso in the Sacred Steel tradition, whose reputation is built on smoldering live shows and white-hot energy. The pairing of T-Bone Burnett and Robert Randolph probably shouldn't work, but give them credit for this much at least: The two men bring out the best in each other.
Remember that, before he got stuck in the sleepy, country-noir vein of Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning effort with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Burnett's greatest success was arguably as a curator, an archivist whose knowledge of American music lore was virtually encyclopedic. For his album with Randolph—We Walk This Road, some two years in the making—Burnett hit the vinyl and came up with a carefully-selected set of golden oldies—a lot of vintage gospel tunes, but also more contemporary cuts from Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Prince.
From there, he basically left it up to Randolph. Smart move: With his Family Band in tow, the steel ace applies molten-lava guitar work to gospel standards, brings a touch of something funky to everything he touches, and pulls rock and funk songs squarely into the realm of gospel, solely through his spiritual fervor and rafter-raising energy. Simply put: This thing is hot.
Every note of it is drenched in gospel, and some of the most moving moments come where you least expect them. Randolph does up Dylan's "Shot of Love" the way Jimi Hendrix might have done it, but the song's heat truly comes from its spiritual urgency; Prince's "Walk Don't Walk," meanwhile, isn't really a religious song, but the Family Band's gospel-choir vocal treatment makes it sound like it was born in a church service.
Fundamentally, the album is a stirring testament to American music history, and in particular to its religious tradition—Burnett spikes the recording with a few archival interludes, field recordings of these songs being performed way back in the day, which show just how rooted in history this stuff is—but We Walk This Road is far more than a museum piece, something ensured not just by Randolph and his band's crackling energy, but also by the way he puts these songs in dialogue together and watches the sparks fly: Socially-aware songs like John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" remind us that songs like these don't appear in a cultural vacuum, but the show-stopping ballad "I Still Belong to Jesus" is a resounding answer, rooted in the truest Hope there is, and it reveals just where Randolph's secret heart lies.
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