LIVE: Robert Randolph & the Family Band @ Pearl Street, 2/18/11

The mid-February thaw was a good excuse to shake off the cabin fever, shed your pelt, and head to the always steamy Pearl St. Nightclub in Northampton to take in gospel, blues, funk and jam band festival favorite Robert Randolph & the Family Band.

Atlanta-based openers the Constellations fired up the crowd with a blend of neo-psychedelic soul, blues, punk and rock. Their debut album “Southern Gothic,” with tracks featuring Cee-Lo and Asher Roth, engendered the sexy song “Felicia” and its subsequent much buzzed about video. Rough-around-the-edges frontman Elijah Jones roared through songs with his gritty voice and even did a slick version of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

According to Jones, the name of the band came from “the idea that the stars make up the constellations, and every band member is a star.” Anyway, the band had a primal, driven feel and is also a hell of a lot of fun. The sound for both bands was bit harsh, but not bad enough to ruin anyone’s good time.

In musical contrast, Robert Randolph put on a soul-thumping show. Touring in support of his latest album, the T Bone Burnett-produced “We Walk This Road,” the improvisational master of the pedal steel guitar boasted soulful arrangements of both old and new songs. His new songs were plumbed from the archives of roots, gospel, rock and traditional music. The New Jersey-based band consists of several family members – drummer Marcus Randolph, vocalist Lanesha Randolph, bassist Danyel Morgan, keyboardist-guitarist Brett Haas and guitarist Adam Smirnoff.

Randolph was named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Top Guitarists of All Time – and one of the few to feature the pedal steel guitar front and center. He does the almost impossible with the emotive instrument, bringing out a fresh sound. Randolph was taught to play in the sacred steel tradition in his church and, apparently, found the sacred in the funk as well, reaching out beyond the church walls to become a jam band cross-over favorite.

The show was an amazing celebration with the always happy and playful Randolph giving his usual dynamite performance. Playing in a seated position, he would spontaneously burst out of his chair to either dance or grab a guitar. It’s difficult to stay put with songs such as “If I Had My Way,” “Ted’s Jam” and “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That.” Half of the female audience was invited on stage to move to “Shake Your Hips.” A few guys were also invited up to jam on guitar. Extended versions of songs veered off into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” And for the encore, the Constellations joined the band on the stomping and uplifting “I Need More Love”.

Robert Randolph wants his message to be one of good, good words, a positive one. Done.

Review by Janet Kwiatkowski

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