By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
A casino is as unlikely a setting for church as beer employees are a congregation. Yet on Friday night, Robert Randolph and the Family Band snuck 90 minutes of gospel on an unsuspecting crowd that loved every minute of it.
The quintet opened with a jam that sounded like the Allman Brothers dropped into an AME church, and found Randolph grinning from ear to ear, smacking his gum while working the horizontal fretboard of his pedal steel guitar.
The next song up, “I Need More Love,” was propelled by a funky six-string bassline and sounded like a lost Sly and the Family Stone track. Swaying in his seat, Randolph segued perfectly into an instrumental cover of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” that kept everyone on the dance floor moving.
After the MJ workout, Randolph stood up and strapped on Telecaster for a country-flavored jam led by some call-and-response vocals by his sister Lenesha Randolph. He was quickly back behind the pedal steel, though, for a John Lee Hooker boogie that packed three dozen women from the crowd onstage and invited them to shake their hips. Everyone obliged.
There was no setlist; songs grew spontaneously out of what the group was feeling. Each note was kinetic. They band may not know their destination, but they made sure everyone had fun getting there.
A tribute to Bo Diddley gradually grew out of a groove based on –- what else? -– the Bo Diddley beat. With Randolph playing one of Diddley’s trademark square guitars, the band launched into a thunderous version of the song “Bo Diddley” that worked its way into “Who Do You Love?” Randolph was so enamored with the square axe he played it for the rest of the main set.
A surprisingly subdued journey through the Doobie Brother’s “Black Water” played up the “funky Dixieland” aspect and kept the audience involved.
Randolph has torn apart the pedal steel stereotype of making only lonesome country twang. His playing is equal parts Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Wonder and his music is so infectious one could forgive audience for missing the message peppered throughout songs like “Deliver Me.” In that one Randolph sang “Should I get on my knees and pray?/I know I, I just can’t make it through another day/I got to, I got to, I got to get away/Deliver me.”
The free show was a thank you to Bud Light employees and boosters. While the Voodoo Lounge was only two-thirds full, it didn’t feel empty. The extra elbow room allowed plenty of space for dancing and the crowd used every inch.
The band left after 75 minutes, but the music didn’t stop. An offstage bass solo slowly built into a jam that found the band back in front of the crowd. The closing song of the night sounded like Led Zeppelin and echoed a thought likely ringing through most minds: “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That.”
Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Crossroads, 2009