Monday, August 23, 2021

Happy 20th Anniversary to Robert Randolph & the Family Band - Live at Wetlands

On this date, 20 years ago, Robert Randolph & the Family Band played their final show at Wetlands in Tribeca, downtown Manhattan and recorded it for a live record which would be released the following year, simply titled Live at Wetlands.

I was in attendance at this show and it was a barn burner. A bit of personal history before diving into this...

In late 2000, at a show for the band Topaz at Wetlands, I happened to be sitting on the edge of the stage during Topaz's set break when four guys in football jerseys started setting up equipment.  There was no other announced act on the bill so it took people by surprise. The club was only about a quarter full with people outside smoking or mingling, when a funky looking instrument called a pedal steel guitar began to ring out. 

Robert Randolph and the Family Band announced themselves with authority, playing for about 45 minutes straight and blowing away Topaz and any other band within a five mile radius as they got down with Marcus Randolph's slamming drums, Jon Ginty's B-3 organ work and Danyel Morgan's slap bass and falsetto singing. Front man Robert was a blurring whirl on the pedal steel and a smiling joyous bundle of uncontrollable energy which I got to witness, a literal foot away.  

Completely in awe, after the set I chatted with the band and found out it was one of their first shows playing live and I was stunned. These guys had it, and it was special. For the next few months I went to every show they played in the area, I was hooked. I described the feeling to friends as if you were catching Santana in their formative days in San Francisco, that virtuous guitar player with a soulful/spiritual backing band, playing rock and roll. 

The four piece were dynamic and fairly quickly set out to make a live album which lead to the Wetlands Show less than a year later.  The club on this summer night was packed, oversold to celebrate the last time this new sensation would be gracing the stage. Wetlands, a place I had seen countless shows from '95-01 was set to close officially in the middle of September but the terrorist attacks of the 11th put an early halt to those plans. On this night the August heat was sweltering as a few friends and I walked downtown and filed in. 

The band was literally on point from the first notes and the packed house was electric as well, eating up the mix of gospel, rock, blues, and soul the band tossed out with wild abandon. The group played two full sets, with a break, to make sure they had material for the record. The dancing, sweating, singing, stomping of feet went on to the wee hours of the morning and the band just didn't have material, they had enough material to release a double album as the palpable sense of something special going on was contagious.

Walking back up to 14th street, with ears ringing and a buzz/high/whatever strictly from the music I was so jazzed that sleeping would have to wait. In the following weeks I caught the band over in Jersey City and chatted with Jon Ginty about that last Wetlands show and he said (paraphrasing from memory) "I've played with a lot of bands who, when it is time to record or have a big live moment, they shrink or don't catch it, these guys could have kept going all night, it was amazing".   

Robert Randolph has continued to evolve, gain notoriety, Grammy awards and fame, succeeding with a variety of Family Band members over the years. Only Marcus stayed on drums from the beginning, but nothing will top those early days to these ears and the first lineup.  Ginty continues to play music, currently with another set of up and coming greats The Allman Betts Band and Danyel Morgan, whose amazing vocals and bass playing were vital to my love of the group left the band in 2014 (Here is a great, deep interview with the artist). 

While we continue to listen (and review) the group as well as catch them live when possible, those crazy '00-'01 months, when we brought every music loving friend we could to see this phenom, will always be special.    

When the official record came out from that nights show the following year, it, like 99% of live albums couldn't fully capture the emotion of the night, but it damn well tried it's hardest and still brings me back to that hot steamy night in Tribeca. So on the concert's 20th anniversary buy the album, stream it on your choice of devices or press play below and get a partial glimpse into what an amazing night of music it was. 

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