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Various Artists
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Packed with live footage from the planet’s most up-tempo church services, this DVD tells the story of the beautiful, singing guitar-based style of spiritual music that’s been tagged "sacred steel." Using interviews with its leading practitioners and some narration, the film explains how the sound developed in the African-American House of God church from the 1930s to the present. But mostly the music does the talking, and it speaks loudest during prayer meetings where the Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent, and other artists who’ve been documented on Arhoolie’s series of acclaimed sacred-steel recordings deliver a manic version of the gospel powered by the screaming, moaning register of their sometimes heavily amplified electric instruments.

There’s a rare living-room session with Willie Eason, one of the genre’s innovators, who was the first to take the music into the political arena with his original number "Tell My Why You Like Roosevelt." (Yes, he’s been playing that long.) There’s also a rippling run through "Without God" from Robert Randolph, who in his early 20s, and inspired as much by Stevie Ray Vaughan as by the church’s elders, is the first House of God guitarist to break into the secular world.

On location at the Perrine House of God in Miami and at a new church dedication in Rush, New York (where the Campbells, Randolph, Ted Beard Jr., and Calvin Cooke all perform), celebrants get the spirit and testify, preachers shout their lessons from the pulpit, and the songs aim to show the path to salvation, which seems to be illuminated with sparks thrown by their lightning slide virtuosity. What all these players have in common, besides their religious conviction, is an ability to make their instruments — whether six- or eight-stringed or pedal steel — talk through their effortless command of dynamics and tone and their wild improvisations. This stuff defines the notion of making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it has the power to please all but the most hard-nosed atheists, too.


Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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