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Strange, but satisfying evening

Robert Randolph and the Family Band / Ziggy Marley
Riverside Theatre
Milwaukee, WI
May 3, 2007
Robert Randolph Robert Randolph

Review by Matt Richter
Photos by Matt Schwenke

At Brew City's Riverside Theatre, a youthful crowd did their best to look disheveled, many donning red-yellow-green ware, peppered with a few older patrons there to catch guitar riffs reminiscent of Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn. The thick crowd, mired in youthful exuberance, meandered from down front to outside, breaking for a quick smoke or to retrieve a fresh drink from the bar. This nomadic audience maintained restlessness throughout the show, which reflected the theme for the evening, more a house-party than a concert.

Taking stage 45-minutes tardy, under a black-and-white banner spelling out "LOVE" in plain block lettering, Ziggy Marley approached the mice to an enthusiastic welcome. Now in the latter-half of a two-year world tour to support his second and latest studio album Love is My Religion, the eldest son of reggae's most notable icon and spiritual leader wrote and played most parts on the album, displaying his effort to define his own sound and shed the label of "his father's son," a lofty challenge.

At the Riverside, Ziggy turned out a blend of originals from his two albums (Dragonfly, his debut album, was released in 2003), mixed equally with covers from his dad's timeless repertoire that spurred reggae to mainstream status, preaching peace, love and an end to war. Ziggy's own work maintains Dad's focus on political prose, but in a more lighthearted, optimistic tone. He turned on the crowd with the politically-charged "Be Free," a high-energy original off of his latest album, and switched to a heavier, faster beat with "Shalom Salaam" from Dragonfly. The crowd cheered and chanted with the bombastic singer/guitarist, occasionally sending a rogue cloud of smoke into the air momentarily caught by security's flashlight beam. Well-done covers of his father's work, including "Positive Vibration" and "Get Up, Stand Up," drove elbow-to-elbow onlookers into an even greater frenzy. Although the energy was high, Marley played too long for an opening act (one-and-a-half hours) and disappointed with too many covers.

In interviews, Ziggy purports strong efforts to maintain originality, but contradicted himself Thursday night by relying on Bob's classics to fill fifty percent of his set. As Ziggy still struggles to find his own voice, his set list at the Riverside begs the question, will he ever be Ziggy, or forever remain his father's son? Not until he can shed his training wheels and acknowledge that his sound and performance still lacks maturity (for instance, he prohibited our professional photography from complimenting his set with a visual record) he will remain an opener for more established artists.

As Robert Randolph and the three members of his Family Band take stage (not soon enough), I can't help but run through preconceived expectations of his performance I formed from televised shows. Being a neophyte to his revered live acts, where he asserts he is most comfortable, the show didn't disappoint, but circumvented my expectations and revealed nuances that regulars to Randolph concerts know well.

Randolph, a New Jersey native, was born to a deacon father and minister mother, who both served as shepherds in the House of God Church (Pentecostal denomination) - a significant fact because it was in the House of God where he first sat down at the steel pedal guitar (the church substitutes the instrument for the organ during services, referring to it as "sacred steel.") Progressing from church performances to shows in New York City, Randolph's natural born talent for the steel pedal and unique church/blues sound earned him accolades from guitar masters including Clapton, as well as a loyal following. Respect from fellow musicians led to a series of well-matched collaborations-John Medeski and Clapton, among others-and the start to a now seven-year-old career as a headliner, with one live album and two studio releases.

Backed by his Family Band (drummer Marcus Randolph, bassist Daniel Morgan, and Jason Crosby on organ) along with guitarist Joey Williams, Randolph achieved even greater notoriety by redefining an instrument's ability-something few musicians achieve-and putting on lively stage performances devoid of set lists.

Thursday night was no exception to his reputation for quality showmanship. He kicked off the set in true high-energy Randolph style with a church-meets-Stevie Ray Vaughn tune. Randolph pulled and prodded an unnatural sound from the box attached to his fingers. He followed the first song with a cover of The Byrd's "Jesus is Just Alright," braiding his 70s funk and blues influences to make the song his own. As he belted out originals dripping with fiery guitar play, he revealed a solid multi-instrumental talent, occasionally ditching his seat at the steel pedal and picking up a traditional electric guitar. For one song, he switched the lineup completely; each band member traded instruments with another until all played (nearly) every other role. In "Shake Your Hips," Randolph invited women from the audience on stage to dance. Careful ears could pick out occasional references to other songs in his own work; during his last tune, he sampled from "Saints Go Marching In," "Mama Say" (Bloodhound Gang) and a riff from a Jackson 5 song.

While Ziggy turned out a descent set, his late arrival on stage and reliance on covers left listeners tired and myself disinterested. Randolph's infections energy, quick-fingered talent and unique structure (or lack of) to his performance breathed life back into a strange evening of music that seemed more festival-like than a true concert.

Robert Randolph Robert Randolph
Robert Randolph Robert Randolph
Ziggy Marley
Ziggy Marley

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