The dazzling sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph had rarely played outside the House of God church when he joined the Word. The band – which includes space-jazz keyboardist John Medeski and the three North Mississippi Allstars, Luther Dickinson (guitar), Cody Dickinson (drums, electric washboard) and Chris Chew (bass) – formed after Randolph appeared on a semi-obscure live compilation and released its self-titled debut in 2000, then toured like mad. They’ve appeared only sporadically since, but next week they will put out Soul Food, the second mostly-instrumental chapter in the quintet’s exploration of the sacred space where gospel, jazz, blues and improvised rock’s X-factor joyously intersect. Below, hear “When I See the Blood,” one of the record’s hottest tracks (a collaboration with vocalist Ruthie Foster), and read Randolph, Medeski and Luther Dickinson’s account of the meals, music and churches behind their welcome return.
What was the Word in the beginning?
Luther Dickinson: It was always special. In 1998, Cody and I were on the road with Medeski, and we were listening to the first Sacred Steel CD on Arhoolie [Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida]. It blew our minds. Two years later, the second Arhoolie CD [Vol. 2: Live!] came out with Robert’s first recorded track, “Without God.” We’re like, “Who is this guy?!” We all met for the first time when Robert’s band opened for the New Mississippi All-Stars at the Bowery Ballroom in New York – with the first Word recording session already booked.
Robert Randolph: I was a righteous guy going to church three times a week. And I was a paralegal making good money. These guys took me out of there [laughs].
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John Medeski: I think Robert sat in at a Medeski Martin & Wood Halloween show a couple of weeks later.
Randolph: That was the first time I seen a bunch of hippies fill the Beacon Theater.
What got the five of you back in the studio 10 years later?
Randolph: Over the years, the fans have always asked, “When are you going to record with the Word again?” But the labels I met would talk as though it was just a little side project. Then I got a call from Bill Bentley at Vanguard. Bill was responsible for my coming over to Warner Bros. back in 2002, and he knew how special the Word is. He said we should record again because A) no other band in the world sounds like this one and B) he would treat the Word as something special.
Medeski: It seemed to get a little better every time we got together at festivals or whatever. Everything else we do is great and we love it, but the Word is a band. It’s got something nothing else we do has. It’s undeniable – although we tried to deny it for 10 years.
Is it safe to say the World is just as steely but perhaps a little less sacred this time around?
Randolph: Well, I’ve strayed further and further away from the church over the years. . . . Nah, I’m just messin’ around.
Medeski: The rest of us feel real bad about that, so we reformed the Word in hopes of bringing Robert back to the church [laughs].
Luther Dickinson: It’s what we talk about at band meetings.
Did you bring most of the gospel material?
Randolph: Both me and Chris Chew both know all the gospel stuff. You got black gospel and you got white gospel. The version of “When I See the Blood,” Chris Chew knows it because it came from the version of Bishop G. Patterson, who’s right there in Memphis and was for years was the head apostle of the Church of God Christ Church. He was familiar with the Clark Sisters song, “You Brought the Sunshine,” which is one of the most famous black gospel songs of all time. The Clark Sisters influenced everybody from Beyoncé to every Eighties and Nineties women’s group. And Luther and Cody are familiar with the rootsy, bluesy gospel stuff, which adds a twist to anything I would do.
Dickinson: My grandmother played piano in Baptist church, which is where I learned all the hymns. And we learned all the blues gospel from all the guitar players who would do gospel songs in a gut-bucket Mississippi style. But when Boo heard us do “Sunshine,” he was like, “Pops cut that!” They cut that at Royal and we didn’t even know it. Boo was freakin’ out. Dee remembered when they did the original.
What were the Soul Food sessions like?
Dickinson: We worked at Brooklyn Recording about a year ago and got together again earlier this year in Memphis. We were at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, where Al Green did all those hits and they just did the Mark Ronson “Uptown Funk” record. It’s unchanged since the Seventies, and it’s perfect. Willie Mitchell’s son, “Boo” Mitchell, keeps the studio alive. Robert caught fire as soon as we set up. He wrote three songs within the first 30 minutes we were there.
Randolph: In Memphis there’s no distractions; in Brooklyn, I got people.
Dickinson: On our last day at Royal, Willie Mitchell’s daughters cooked us this outrageously delicious soul food spread. We were hootin’ and hollerin’ because the food was so good and the ladies were so funny. I couldn’t imagine playing afterward, but Robert was like, “Alright, we gotta go play behind this meal right now.” So we sat down and did the two “Soul Food” jams. Once again, Robert just hit that D-flat chord and we went off into a 15-minute improv.
Randolph: Every Word song is like a soup. You know how on cold days you get the biggest pot you can find and just start throwing in ingredients? And once it’s all done simmering, two or three hours later, you taste it and go, “OK, that’s soup for the day!” I don’t know what our music’s called, but it’s soup.