Sacred Steel (5/16/2003)
Mark Knopfler, The Ragpicker's Dream (Warner Bros. 2002) - Guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler, formerly of Dire Straits, needs no introduction. On a prolific jag, Knopfler returns with the full-blown follow-up to his very successful Sailing to Philadelphia, which sold 3-1/2 million copies worldwide.
The Ragpicker's Dream finds Knopfler in a more acoustic mode, with less emphasis on making a hit. Knopfler has a well-seasoned voice that matches his guitar mastery.
Comments Knopfler, "I don't see it as a desire to get away from electric at all. The song comes first, the song is the king and you try to do the right thing by the song, that's always been my way of doing it. I'm playing less electric, yea, just because I was sitting at home with an acoustic flat-top and writing the songs. Staying fairly true to that is why it's shaped the way it is...The instrument that was always there was this Martin."
In addition to recording three solo albums since 1996, Knopfler has been busy scoring several films, including A Shot at Glory and Wag the Dog. Knopfler has world-wide appeal; while The Ragpicker's Dream only made it to number 38 on the U.S. album charts, it topped the charts in Norway, and reached No. 2 in Spain and Holland.
Knopfler remains the master of the late night lament, as displayed on "A Place Where We Use to Live." Knopfler also covers all musical idioms, as he shows on the playful hula-cum-hillbilly sound of "Daddy's Gone to Knoxville."
Knopfler works with the band he established in 1996, including Richard Bennett on guitars, Jim Cox on piano and Hammond organ, long-time cohort Guy Fletcher on keyboards, Glen Worf on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums.
The black and white photograph featured on the cover of the new album was taking by photographer Elliot Erwitt in Valencia in 1952. Mark says he chose the photograph as he felt it summed up everything that's good in life.
Knopfler drinks from a deep musical cup, commenting that the bouncy "Quality Shoe" is "kind of my little tribute to 'King of the Road.' I was lucky enough to meet Roger Miller shortly before he passed away, and it was a very pleasant experience."
Knopfler also has a way with the lyric. Thus, he explains that the title to "Why Aye Man" is slang for "Well, Of Course," while the song "Coyote" is actually sung from the point of view of the Roadrunner.
While most of the album was recorded in the U.S., Knopfler makes music when he wants. Says Knopfler, "I've got a semi-home studio in a little mews house in London, and there is a little back bedroom in there that sounds really good, so I've done quite a lot of work in there. 'Marbletown' I just did with the Martin and a couple of mics."
With all his world travels, Knopfler also is attuned to social issues. "Hill Farmer's Blues" takes a line from a city in County Durham. Comments Knopfler, "Recently it was the time of foot and mouth, and it was on my mind a lot, how hard it was. We were reading about suicides of farmers, and then I thought if I could make it work for everyone, your farmer in the song could be from where you come from, even in another country. So I've tried to make it work for everything everywhere. Most importantly, I tried to make it work for me."
Knopfler makes smart music for adults, and has a world-wide following. The Ragpicker's Dream focuses on his playing, and has less emphasis on the "hit." More acoustic and introverted but still worth a listen.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Live at The Wetlands (Dare Records/Warner Bros. 2002) - Robert Randolph plays in a style that is a throwback to the late 60s and early 70s, recalling John Mayall, Cream, and the Allman Brothers. With Live at The Wetlands, Randolph delivers a knockout punch with a six-song jam.
The way the album is marketed is a little odd. Randolph is a musician in the "Sacred Steel" religious sect, which is based in Florida. Sacred Steel has African-American roots, and uses the pedal steel guitar as a "primary source of musical worship."
Yet to hear Live at The Wetlands, and the between-songs discussion, you'd think that Randolph was a just damned good blues rocker, making his way in the bars and clubs of New York and keeping alive the spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Even more, the album notes make no reference to the Sacred Steel, although they do discuss the 13-year run of the Wetlands Music Club in New York City.
A native of New Jersey, the 24-year-old Randolph grew up attending the House of God Church in Orange, where his father was a deacon and his mother a minister. This denomination of the Pentecostal Church has a unique, 60-year tradition of musical services that began because steel guitars are inexpensive stand-ins for pipe organs. Says Randolph, "It's one instrument that you would always see people play there, so I just felt like playing it. I wanted to get into it, because of the voicings."
Randolph soon graduated to a 10-string pedal steel guitar, and then to the challenging 13-string pedal model he now plays. Robert also drew inspiration from the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Says the performer, "That's what really turned the light switch on. 'Man, I gotta try to play the pedal steel guitar like this guy.' I had never heard of him. I was like, 'Oh, man!'"
Adds Randolph, "I would always talk to the people in the church to find out how they went about playing and how they tuned their guitars. I would basically call all the church guys out and try to get different stuff for them, take different pointers, find out how to play songs."
With his crossover to secular music, Robert has drawn some heat. He explains, "A lot of the guys from the church can't leave and go out there and play because of the church rules. They can't go out and play clubs. They hold offices in the church. Most of the ministers will tell you that it's wrong. But I'm doing it basically for the instrument...It's been hidden for so long. I'm trying to get it out there and make it as well-known as possible."
Not that there are religious overtones to Live at The Wetlands, which was recorded live on August 23, 2001. The band includes Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar and vocals, cousins Danyel Morgan on bass guitar and vocals and Marcus Randolph on drums, and white-guy John Ginty on Hammond organ.
Listening to the old Slim Harpo track "Shake Your Hips" and the standup rock of "The March" will put you in mind for a blues-rock boogie jam. These guys are not quite as good as the Allman Brothers, but they're a pretty darn close facsimile. And that's high praise. This is far more than just a sweaty bar band - this could be the start of a major career.
- Randy Krbechek © 2003
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