Robert Randolph may be the most original artist to erupt from contemporary music since Jimi Hendrix shouldered a white Stratocaster and played left-handed electric rock-and-roll lightning. Randolph's instrument and style of choice are decidedly different from Hendrix's; he plays the pedal steel, a guitar long associated with the mournful weep of country music, and he uses it in the service of sacred steel, a gospel style that evolved in the earliest part of the 20th century, in the House of God arm of the Pentecostal Church. At the age of 17, Randolph learned the pedal steel from an uncle; over the course of a summer, the teenager evolved from a pupil with no apparent talent for music into a master of jaw-dropping proportions.
In the past year, Randolph has become one of music's bona fide phenoms, touring outside of his Orange, New Jersey, home base (against the advice of some members of his congregation) and moving into the world of secular music clubs and theaters. Randolph is on the road again, dividing his time between two bands -- he tours and records with The Word, which is made up of Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi All Stars, and his own band, the Family, which works a groove equally inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan, New Orleans funk, and Delta blues. Randolph and the Family have just released their debut album, Live at the Wetlands, and the buzz -- from the pew to the seat by the bar -- just keeps getting louder.