A young exponent of the still delightfully obscure "sacred steel" guitar style, Robert Randolph is the first to emerge from the House of God Church and seek his fortune in the secular world. His debut turns out to be a mixed blessing. The House of God is an African-American branch of the Pentecostal Church. Members quietly began incorporating the steel guitar into their worship services in the 1930s, when Hawaiian guitar was first a fad. They evolved a unique style in splendid isolation that came to be known to outsiders only through a recent series of extraordinary releases from Arhoolie Records.
Randolph’s steel playing has much of the passion heard in church, and it suggests many of the ways sacred steel guitar plays against, answers, and pushes a singer. He is not, however, a distinctive singer (and of course he can’t push himself); neither is he yet an accomplished songwriter. The jam-band crowd has adopted him — witness this live debut taped at the late Wetlands in Manhattan. In that setting his penchant for stating and restating the same handful of elegant figures might be satisfying. On disc, however, it is simply tiring in the way it settles for a circular groove rather than building toward a climax. It seems a pale substitute for the ecstasy his elders find in church.