Robert Randolph & the Family Band Unclassified

If you’ve ever seen someone play a pedal steel guitar up close, it’s obvious what a demanding instrument it is. Because of this, it’s always been in the background, but Robert Randolph is changing that. As part of a recently discovered community of Southern musicians who have used steel guitar as the instrument of choice for their gospel revival gatherings, Randolph’s transformation of the steel from an add-on to the focal point of his band’s sound has been remarkable. Unclassified comes on the heels of his work on The Word with John Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars, as well as his own band’s Live At The Wetlands. If those around him are thus seeing this album as the vehicle to reaching a wider audience, Randolph definitely holds up his end of the bargain. Right from the opening notes of “Going in the Right Direction,” his chops are on glorious display, and the pace rarely lets up throughout the rest of the songs. In particular, the instrumental “Squeeze” encapsulates everything Randolph is able to do on the steel, but Unclassified is no mere exhibition of skill. The album overall is an uplifting experience rooted in everything gospel and soul music should be: a celebration of life. The great playing is just an added bonus, but if that’s what it takes to draw people to Randolph’s immense talent, so be it. It is a rare moment when it can be said that someone is pushing the boundaries of music, and Randolph certainly does that with his playing. But it wouldn’t mean half as much if the music itself wasn’t so fulfilling. (Universal)