Twilight Concert Series: The Word
The genesis of THE WORD began in 1998, when the Avant-jazz and funk group Medeski, Martin & Wood took the burgeoning North Mississippi Allstars on their first tour. Riding down the road, the groups listened to the first two Arhoolie Records compilations of sacred steel guitar, a musical style then just seeping into the broader public awareness. Sacred steel is ecstatic pedal steel guitar used in sanctified churches; it’s the same instrument familiar to country & western music, but played with the authority and scale of a church organ. Keyboardist John Medeski and Luther Dickinson cooked up the idea of recording an instrumental gospel album with the Allstars (Luther Dickinson—guitars; Cody Dickinson—drums; Chris Chew—bass) in Medeski’s Brooklyn studio. When they learned that a young sacred steel star named Robert Randolph lived in New Jersey, they invited him to their area gig. This was THE WORD’S big bang.
THE WORD plays the hymnal of the electric improvisational church. They don’t struggle with arrangements, and they leave room for each other to stretch out. They toured together after their 2001 debut, and have reunited occasionally, including Bonnaroo in 2005 and 2012 and the Jam Cruise in 2010. One big difference between the first album and the new album, Soul Food (out May 5th on Vanguard) is how much more knowledge each has accumulated. “For the first Word record, I was new to playing outside the church,” says Robert. “I know a lot more now.” John says, “We have more experiences, more music. We’re all just better players.”
Fourteen years may have passed between albums for THE WORD, but that’s no suggestion of broken bonds. Nor of broken strings. A love of music, of extended improvisational collaboration, of closing the eyes and channeling the feel—these are the ties that bind THE WORD.
The Word will play August 13th with Lee Fields & The Expressions supporting.
— Robert Gordon, author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion