That’s the ticket
What: Robert Randolph presents The Slide Brothers
When: 8 p.m. Friday, with a pre-performance talk at 7 p.m.
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $25-$59 general, $12.50-$29.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787
Friday’s concert at the Mondavi Center by The Slide Brothers brings together several performers in a black gospel tradition known as Sacred Steel, which developed in pentecostal churches in which the electric slide guitar became a primary musical element in worship services.
Calvin Cooke — one of the guitarists to be featured — got his start on the instrument at an early age.
“I was born in Cleveland, in 1944,” he explained. “When I was about 11, my mother got me a six-string Rickenbacker steel guitar, and I started learning how to play that. We had an old piano, and my mother knew how to play enough to tell me about a few chords.”
Several other musically inclined cousins got involved, and soon, Cooke was playing in three- and four-piece bands (steel guitar, drums, lead guitar, piano) that performed gospel standards in church.
“But my mother also felt that we should listen to other things. She didn’t want us to be (musically) restricted,” Cooke said. “So I listened to a lot of country and western music on the radio.”
As Cooke came of age in the 1960s, his horizons expanded further.
“One of my cousins came over, she was into rock — Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles, and also Yes (the English progressive rock band). And on weekends in the summertime, my family had barbecues in the back yard, and sometimes they played an Elmore James record, ‘The Sky is Crying’ ” — a blues standard recorded in 1959. “The way (Elmore) played it, it sounded like a steel guitar.” Which gave Cooke some ideas that he worked into his own style.
Cooke eventually moved to Detroit, where he got a job with Chrysler. And when Yes played in Detroit, Cooke made a point of hearing them in concert. And he continued to play the slide guitar — sometimes at church, sometimes in other settings, becoming known as one of the great Sacred Steel performers.
The Sacred Steel style gained more attention among general audiences through a series of albums on the Arhoolie label, starting in 1997, featuring Cooke, Willie Eason, the Campbell Brothers (Darick and Chuck), Aubrey Ghent, Robert Randolph and others.
Randolph — one of the younger Sacred Steel performers — put together the current tour, which includes Cooke, the Campbell Brothers and Ghent. They’ve also recorded an album as The Slide Brothers (due for release Tuesday on the Concord label) that includes gospel standards like “Wade in the Water,” a cover version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a cover version of James’ “The Sky is Crying,” “Motherless Children” (an old spiritual more familiar to modern audiences through Eric Clapton’s cover version), and more. The Slide Brothers also have toured as part of the Experience Jimi Hendrix tour in 2012.
The current Slide Brothers tour includes dates in university venues like the Mondavi Center, as well as a few dates in casino showrooms.
“Playing out from the church is different,” Cooke said, “but we’ve seen a lot of appreciation of our style of music, and what we play.”
He added that the show is very much a collaborative effort: “All of us have a different part we play. We kind of take turns, each one has certain songs they strut their stuff on. We’re kind of like a jam band. We do a mixture of gospel and blues, bringing them both together. And then we just go on from there.”
One of the band’s recent dates in upstate New York was canceled by the blizzard that tore through the Northeast earlier this month.
“We were supposed to open up for Taj Mahal, but it was the worst snowstorm I’ve ever seen,” Cooke said — and having lived in Detroit, he’s seen his share of snowy winter days.
Robert Randolph could be described as the convener and organizer of the tour, with the idea of bringing the Sacred Steel style to audiences who otherwise might never hear it.
“My goal is to open the door for people in the same way that musical doors have been opened for me,” Randolph explained. “I want to take this musical history and make it relevant to give people a better idea of who we are and where this tradition came from. I think even though I’m a young guy who was born into the era of hip-hop and contemporary gospel, I can help bridge the cultural gap between people who are 75 years old and kids who are 15 years old by reaching back into this history of music.”
The concert — titled Robert Randolph presents The Slide Brothers — is at 8 p.m. Friday in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall. Tickets are $25-$59 general, $12.50-$29.50 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787. There will be a 7 p.m. pre-performance talk by Milmon F. Harrison, an associate professor of African-American and African students at UC Davis.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.