IN WHICH Robert Randolph and The Family Band let loose a furious funk and burgeoning blues sound at the Den, on our long- belated night out…
Well as I write this a day later, sitting out here on the Middle Grove plateau, it seems like a really vivid dream I had last eve. My daughter is none too happy with me as I’m playing the late great Stevie Ray Vaughn’s CD version of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) at top volume (“It’s SATURDAY” I tell her) while I prep eggs & fry bacon, paleo-style, as I sing along, loudly and badly:
I didn’t MEAN to take up alla your sweet time,
Give it back to you one a these ole days…
If I don’t see ya anymore in this world,
I’ll see ya in the NEXT, and DON’T be LATE…
DON’T BE LATE!
This is the aftereffect, for me, of seeing a performance like we caught last night.
I have to either hear more of the same, or the closest equivalent I can find.
VOODOO CHILD was the song last night, second tune in, first hard-earned beer in hand, that set my arm hairs on high alert as tingling sonic pleasure began to saturate my bones and pores. Robert Randolph’s Family Band was in full thrall from note one. My wife beaming alongside me, and bouncing her head, could no longer accuse me of not taking her downtown since she could remember, after a long reclusive winter of me watching basketball while hunkering down on business emails at night. We had indeed missed out on a lot of music I’d fully intended to see at places like the Racino’s nightclub Vapor (Stellar Young, Fences, In Flight Safety) and Clifton Park”s Upstate Concert Hall (Courtney Barnette), not to mention numerous high quality acts at The Egg down on Empire Plaza (too many to list), and The Hollow (Shaky Graves) down in Albany as well. At the renowned Troy Music Hall I should’ve seen Citizen Cope on April 1st, but no, didn’t make it. Real life had intruded once again. I had also missed a sold-out Robert DeLong show at this very venue back in February (I think) which would’ve been unique. But in this case the world-class music was coming to us, downtown, not at the Gambling Resort, and not in the middle of summer: before the Putnam Den began the trend, this was not a guaranteed weekly event in Saratoga Springs in recent years, though it seems more likely to be sustained now… I had no excuse to miss this.
Town had seemed quiet as we pulled in from the west, even walking Broadway at 10 pm the mood felt subdued even though it was the first spring-like Friday in April; the streets were not brimming with people as we’ve come to expect now year-round in this hip little city up north. One reason might have been that most folks were already in the clubs. We skipped the trip down Caroline but ducked down the alley shortcut to the DEN, and as soon as we turned the corner the contained din of throbbing bliss became apparent. Over four hundred attendees were rapt and happy to be inside before we meandered in, just in time. As SARATOGA TODAY writer Arthur Gonick had foretold in his preview this very day, the owners of the Den had pulled a major coup, getting this group to groove up here.
The crowd had been packed to a comfortable bobbing density/intensity, transfixed more than rowdy as we eventually found a spot to plant and see the stage (don’t plan to sit much in there) and got acclimated– everybody standing, fixated on the commanding presence of the seated master of lap steel — ROBERT RANDOLPH himself, in full bandana’d glory–plus his nasty four piece Family Band. The drummer and bass player were apparently cousins of his, as the core trio, supplemented by an organist/keyboard/percussionist and a white, bearded lead guitarist, whom they’d apparently adopted into their musical clan.
Since this act had sold out in advance, there’d a mini-Studio 54 scene out front as not everyone who showed up could get in. Fortunately we did (thank you Tiffany), after the owner seemed to give us favored status, which is a nice albeit rare perk for writing this music blog periodically. We smiled our way past the Celo Green-lookalike overseeing the entry portal as Randolph and Company cranked out their first processional funk intro. Didn’t get a name on that one, but it sounded like their signature tune on MSG when they gig at the Garden as houseband for the NY Knicks).
That became the backdrop for trying to thread through the masses to the far bar. The Den on this night was as full as Gaffney’s, Siro’s or City Tavern in summer. Bartenders were in full rush mode, pouring fast and collecting cash, while the band blasted electric lava. There would be no slow ballads during the subsequent marathon set.
We backtracked successfully from the bar to the center of the room, as the skittering jittery scratches that begin VooDoo Chile got my attention. I couldn’t have requested anything better, and before long Robert was diving deep into that metaphysical trip Jimi left us as a composition and I was thinking this might be as close as I come in my belated lifetime to seeing and hearing Hendrix himself, as if Randolph was carrying forth that ancestral tradition. But as the jam spun into multiple choruses, including a beautiful organ chorus…I realized it was more a Stevie Ray Vaughn version than pure Jimi– with RR’s lap guitar mimicking the Texan at times, then spinning it off with funk of his own. I was so glad we weren’t on the outside, looking in.
The Stevie Ray theme continued with the very next tune– The Sky is Crying. I always felt a deep kinship with SRV, having seen him three times in his prime, before he died in that tragic helicopter crash after a reputedly epic final performance in 1990. He & I were born the same year, vintage 1955; now it’s been a quarter century since he left. I was deeply pleased that a long-gone skinny white boy from Austin would be celebrated 25 years later by a funk/blues band from New Jersey, and the crowd was eating it up. From that deep organ groove it evolved into a full soapy frenzy. As with a few songs in Randolph’s set– they’d start out slow and slinky, then accelerate and kick it up several notches as they went.
The third song in a row that stood out began with an upbeat ZZ-Toppish shuffle as Robert vocally noted it was “GOOD FRIDAY, so we wanna make y’all feel Good out there!” He then called out a few female volunteer dancers from the stage area, who proceeded to illustrate the music’s liberating effects as the tune we’d seen Joan Osbourne perform a few times took hold of the room. “SHAKE YOUR HIPS” (times about six !) was both the name of the tune and the order of the night. All the women in the club seemed to shake in concur-ment, and I was fine with that. The pulsation was contagious, as we always hope for on a night, a gig, an experience, like this.
Soon there was a segue into a slightly creole version of “When The Saints Come Marching In” a la Trombone Shorty…without any horns, just the slide doing its thing… and then I just stopped taking notes and listened. I happened to be texting my longtime buddy Carl Landa and his new bride Erika, whose informal 2-minute wedding ceremony at City Hall I’d witnessed two days before, chiding him for not joining us downtown, but he was beat from performing at Skidmore already that night, and had two more shows to do the next day. I told him he was currently missing a cover of Bill Withers’ USE ME
Mssr. Randolph was performing in the manner of James Blood Ulmer as if sung by Al Green’s grandnephew of funk, whatever that means. I’d only had two beers and stopped there, but was once again gushing with the greatness of what I was hearing.
But this is why we go to concerts, performances, shows, and even occasional bar gigs, isn’t it? To achieve and share a mutual sonic ecstasy? To find cathartic release from the mundane often aggravating chores of our business week? This is what the Blues have been for since time immemorial– group therapy with a wicked beat.
It was over all too quickly– apparently there was only intended to be one set of an hour and fifteen minutes, as Tiffany the most gracious PUTNAM DEN co-owner had advised us before we went in, plus an encore. While we stood behind the sound booth we could see the timer going past 80 and 90 minutes before winding down at the 1:34 mark. Then the band came back out for a rousing encore that brought the whole affair to close to two hours and then they one-by-one waved off and departed stage left, to apparently truck (or van) back to Jersey before dawn.
As we eased out the door I tried to catch sight of PUTNAM DEN’s proprietors to thank them for booking a killer national act like this– fearuring a relatively young musician who has already been named as one of Rolling Stones’ Top 100 Guitarists of All Time. But I will say it here, that this 450-person capacity room has evolved into an amazing venue right in the semi- hidden heart of Saratoga’s fault-line, between Broadway and “The Gut,” as the stretch between Caroline and Phila used to be dubbed. Owners Jonathon and Tiffany are to be commended, and supported. Thanks also to Robert Randolph and his Family Band for making the trip north to entertain us, even though their trip likely took much longer than their time on stage. Hope you might return to this town — maybe even to SPAC itself one of these subsequent summers– again soon.
As for those around me at the club– thanks for putting up with my whooping and shouted YEAHs at various points of emphasis… I’ve been doing this since watching jazz bands back in the 70’s, and can’t seem to keep my audible excitement to myself, after all these years.
As for my wife, thanks for hanging with me and sharing times like these through thick and thin over the past 26+ years… and wasn’t this better than just another quiet romantic dinner?
Ciao to all, I’ll be back on this blog, and others, soon…
Wayne … at saratoga.com/WaynesWord2