The sacred steel supergroup's second album is the sound of friends hanging out at a higher level, but it's a familiar sound.
My ears pricked up late in “Early in the Moaning’ Time” on The Word’s Soul Food. Late in the song, sacred steel player Robert Randolph simulates moaning on his steel guitar’s bass strings. The sound is odd and haunting, something found on an early Moog synthesizer album that demonstrated all the weird, not-of-this-world sounds it could make (Check Hugo Montenegro’s Mr. Groovy), and it caught my attention because it’s rare on sacred steel projects. Sacred steel guitarists—Randolph included—have that inspirational, ascending sweep toward high notes grooved. Muddling around bass notes is not usually part of their gospel.
Moments like that and the wobbly, faltering melody he picks out for “The Highest” give Soul Food not lift—it has plenty of that—but distinction. You can have a band with John Medeski and Luther and Cody Dickinson, Randolph’s tendency toward the musical and spiritual rave-up means the album often sounds familiar.
The Word play Jazz Fest's Acura Stage today at 2:30 p.m., and not surprisingly, the album is generally Randolph and Luther Dickinson’s baby. Medeski doesn’t define a song until “Speaking in Tongues” late in the album, when he patiently lets the magic of each texture as well as each note happen.
His track and the weird bass notes stand out because otherwise, Soul Food is all about excitement—the stomping gospel rhythms, the uplifting melodic movement, and the sonic energy that comes with the distortion on his and Dickinson’s guitars. Both remain abuzz with electricity from start to finish. Not surprisingly, the band plays remarkably and sensitively together, with Dickinson’s guitar often subtly nudging Randolph forward or adding accents that sound like nothing, except they aren’t. When he sets the table as on “Play All Day,” The Word gets out of the church but the central dynamics remain the same.
It’s not ground-breaking, but for those who find the Spirit yearly in Jazz Fest’s Gospel Tent, Soul Food hits the sweet spot.