Home / Concert Reviews / Robert Randolph and His Family Band w/ Ha Ha Tonka @ Turner Hall Ballroom
Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Robert Randolph and His Family Band w/ Ha Ha Tonka @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Oct. 12, 2011

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Graduating from playing steel guitar in his church denomination's circuit, where his instrument of choice leads congregational singing, Robert Randolph and his Family Band netted a major label deal, but what a marketing challenge they must be. Drawing from blues, funk, R&B, rock, country and, of course, gospel, Randolph and his (mostly) kin come off as a jam band with some sense of restraint. Fitting in too many genre niches and, by extension, none at all, theirs has been a slow-build notoriety that has evaded easy pigeonholing and radio programming.

But Randolph's dilemma of categorical difficulty means that those who find his band's music probably sought it out or, once they find it through the various outlets that give it sporadic airing (I've even heard one their VH1 near-hits on Kiss 103.7... once), they're probably going to stick with it loyally. And those who have stuck with them know the vast sweep they cut through American sounds. The crowd gathered for them at Turner Hall Wednesday responded enthusiastically to the sonic freedom Randolph's Fam' explored.

Being able to sit down at his instrument may be one of the perks of Randolph's job, but he doesn't take full advantage of that sedentary benefit. As his fingers ran through everything from Hendrixian squalls to twang piquant enough for a full honky-tonk, he rocked, bowed and swayed. Conversely, when he invited women in the audience to dance on stage as he ran through The Rolling Stones' "Hip Shake," he was cucumber cool, even as one gal draped her arms around him. In his seated, nigh stoic position, he muted the tune's sexual energy into something more wholesomely fun, regardless of all that shimmying going on.

Lyrics aren't necessarily the primary focus of a Randolph show, but they more often take on the air of the kind of sectarianly unaligned message music of '70s Staples Singers. After a couple studio albums hat fell short of capturing the Family Band's full potential, last year's T Bone Burnett-produced We Walk This Road
honed their energy, including their lyrical side. Speaking of The Staple Singers, Randolph's younger sister, Lenesha, brought to her background and occasional lead vocals a presence recalling Mavis Staples' growling grit and Ike-era Tina Turner's fiery sass. Bass playing cousin Danyel recalled Sly And The Family Stone's Larry Graham when he sang, but he kept the group's low end in a wilder manner more becoming Victor Wooten or Flea. Brother Robert bridged the gap from tent revival to blues revue as he peppered his minimal banter between tunes with preacher-isms about testifying, getting a witness and not letting anyone steal your joy.

The joy extended to some guys in the audience as it did with the ladies shaking their money-makers earlier in the show, too, as Randolph allowed a series of dudes to try out his electric guitar for a couple bars as the rest of the Family played behind them. That same participatory spirit permutated to the band as well, as Robert, Marcus, drummer cousin Marcus and non-relative guitarist nicknamed Noodles played round robin on each other's instruments, and quite capably.

At show's end, Family and audience probably matched each other in blissfully sated exhaustion.

Abetting them toward that state before Randolph and his clan came on were Ha Ha Tonka. The Missouri Ozarks quartet have been marketed as alt country, but tonight came off as especially feisty and wide-ranging folk rock. Original numbers found the mid-point between snide and sincere, but they were equally adept at letting a mere mandolin accompany them or completely a capella. They pulled out all stops, concluding with Leadbelly's "Black Betty" in the style of Ram Jam's metal boogie 1977 hit remake. Out of character from the rest of their set, but in the most fun way.

Photo by Erik Ljung

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