The sacred and the profane have long struggled for supremacy in the blues and its many offshoots. The most fascinating artists have been able to reconcile the two — letting the right shoulder’s angel hold sway while paying occasional heed to the pitchfork-toting figure on the left.
That’s the dichotomy at play in the Word, an oddly-configured, but altogether compelling aggregation that throws together the three members of frenzied blues-rockers North Mississippi All-Stars, organ-jazz titan John Medeski and de facto leader Robert Randolph — a 23-year-old pedal steel prodigy with deep roots in the House of God church.
Over the course of a rambling, two-and-a-half-hour perf that added a few degrees to what was already the hottest day Gotham had seen in two years, the quintet dipped deep into the gospel repertoire, the all-instrumental makeup leaving no doubt as to the message being relayed. Early on, Medeski dominated, his thick, meaty organ riffs sprawling across the measures of “Call Him by His Name” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.”
Seated at center stage, Randolph, who first came to the attention of his secular bandmates through his appearance on the “Sacred Steel” compilation, looked impassive enough, head bowed and face fixed in intense concentration. But the sounds he pulled from his pedal steel were nothing short of exhilarating, particularly on long, wending versions of “Without God” and “At the Cross.”
Randolph’s fire was echoed here and there by Luther Dickinson, who has grown far more assertive and adventurous in his own soloing — as evidenced by his contributions to a fierce version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” The set could have used a few more shots of that overproof wildness, though
With the majority of the drawn-out jams, clocking in at upward of 10 minutes apiece — lapsing into a similar mid-tempo boogie groove, the set often bordered on the lethargic, the musicians milling around, rather than pressing forward. Most vexing on “Blood on that Rock” and a plodding rendition of “I Shall Not be Re-Moved,” the placidity still seemed more back-porch mellow than ennui-ridden.
Still, music that demands a soulful response requires its makers to work for that response. By set’s end, Randolph and company got to that point — particularly on a rhythmically complex traipse through “The March” and a smoldering take on Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” As the crowd melted into the night, it was clear that the call had gotten the intended response.