STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
You may not have heard of The Word. After all, they just released their first album in 14 years – an eternity in the world of music. But you’ve likely heard of at least some of the members of this super group – Robert Randolph (pedal steel guitar), John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood, keyboards) and the North Mississippi Allstars: Luther Dickinson (guitars), Cody Dickinson (drums) and Chris Chew (bass). OK, now I have your attention. If you’re looking for a spiritual awakening, keep reading.
Back in 1998, Medeski Martin & Wood took the North Mississippi Allstars on their first tour. While on the road, they listened to the first two compilations of sacred steel music on Arhoolie Records. Sacred steel is pedal steel guitar used in sanctified churches, which is where Randolph got his start.
“Playing gospel music is something that I’ve always loved. I’ve always been attracted to it since I first heard it as a kid,” said Medeski in a phone interview from his home in upstate New York. “I first heard sacred steel music when I was doing a recording session in New Orleans. I went to this really great record store called Louisiana Music Factory… (with) a friend of mine from New York… and we saw the section in the record store called Sacred Steel, in the CD section. We were like, ‘What is that?’
“We just grabbed a CD and listened to it. The guy’s name (is) Aubrey Ghent and it just blew our minds. We listened to it every night… And then I got all the rest of the CDs. It’s all (on) this label called Arhoolie. It got me really into that music.”
The Dickinson brothers also loved sacred steel music.
“Their mom played organ and piano in church and they grew up with all those (gospel) hymns,” said Medeski. “They’re from north Mississippi, near Memphis… and they grew up with that kind of music around them all the time.”
Medeski and Dickinson got the idea to record an instrumental gospel album with the Allstars in Medeski’s Brooklyn studio. Meanwhile, The Allstars invited Randolph and his Family Band to open for them at their gig in New York City; it was Randolph’s first performance outside the church.
Medeski continued, “(After that concert) we asked Robert to come play on the record that we had already started making. It was kind of this magical, synergistic thing that happened and that really codified the project, and (we) became The Word and that record [“The Word” (Ropeadope, 2001)] came out and a lot of people liked it.
“It all kind of came together at once, and the chemistry was instantly amazing, and that’s the thing about this band. The chemistry when we get together – we don’t even have to talk. We just start playing music and it works. The music happens. It comes out like turning on a faucet.”
The Word toured after that debut album was released and they’ve reunited a few times for concerts over the years, but “Soul Food” (Ropeadope, 2015) is their first recorded project since their 2001 debut. It is simply because the band members are all so busy with their other projects. Medeski emphasizes that the band is important to all of them, despite their lack of recorded output.
“I think we ended up doing (the second album) because we all have all our other things that we do but… this fills a certain void that nothing else does. A certain something happens when we get together that doesn’t happen for us in any other situation.
“(The album) has a lot of different stuff going on. Some of it is very classic sacred steel, other stuff is instrumental rock and blues/R&B kind of music but all with a very uplifting gospel-like feeling.”
One thing that wasn’t a problem was finding enough material for “Soul Food.”
“We did two recording sessions for this record – one in New York, one in Memphis. The one in Memphis we had to stop playing and recording because we had too much material to work with, so we had to stop and start dealing with what we had already done because new stuff was just coming out constantly. I told the band ‘this is a lot of creativity.’”
He added: “Everyone’s a really good improviser, everyone’s a producer and a composer and a leader in their own right… so when we get together (it) automatically takes shape. Beginning, middle, end – it all works, so it’s great.”
“Soul Food” is again mostly instrumental but there are two old gospel songs with vocals. There are originals by Medeski and Randolph that they brought to the band and also originals that the band wrote together through improvisation.
As for the live shows, Medeski said: “It’s a live concert. You can go anywhere at any time. (There’s) the material from both albums plus a lot of new material comes up in the moment. I guess it’s like a church service. In that church, anything can happen at any time. The music is the main focus of the service and people can sing. Anybody could be inspired to start something and the band has to jump on it and go and be ready for anything and that’s kind of what it’s like. We’re probably ready for anything. Anybody can start something up and everybody jumps on it and we just start going.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Word with Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers
When: Concert is set for 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15.
Where: Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.
Tickets: $29.50 – $39.50
Ages: All Ages
Info.: Call (215) 572-7650 or check www.keswicktheatre.com
Artist’s website: www.thewordtheband.com