Normally when you think of steel guitar, especially pedal steel guitar, the last thing in the world that’s going to come to mind is African American gospel music. A country gospel tune like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” sure, but you don’t ever expect to hear one playing in one of those earth shaking, hip swinging gospel choirs that inspired today’s funk, soul, and blues musicians. Yet if you were a congregation member of The House Of God, Keith Dominion churches, steel guitar in shape or another is exactly what you’d have been hearing since the 1930′s.
Sacred steel music was born out of the popularity of the Hawaiian Steel guitar in the early part of the twentieth century. Two brothers, Troman and Willie Eason were responsible for bringing the steel guitar to the House of God services in the 1930′s. While Troman had learned how to play in the Hawaiian style, Willie had not had any formal training and simply played the music he was familiar with on this guitar. From such humble beginnings a genre was born.
The Lee Boys are a family group consisting of three brothers; Alvin (guitar), Derrick, and Keith (vocals) and three nephews; Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (7 string bass), and Earl Walker (drums). They each grew up making music in a House of God congregation in Perrine Fl. where the brother’s father was pastor and steel player. Having been playing together, or individually, in the church since they were seven they’ve not only developed into proficient musicians but have also learned the key elements for staging a successful show. You don’t need to look any further than their new DVD release Live At Bonnaroo for evidence of just how impressive they are.
Sunday mornings at folk festivals were reserved for gospel groups from all over, and I guess Bonnaroo is keeping up that tradition as this recording is of a Sunday morning performance The Lee Boys gave at last year’s festival. Now I can’t think of a tougher time, or a harder audience to play for, than the Sunday morning of a festival. Half the crowd is either recovering from the night before, if they’ve even gone to bed yet, and the other half are just wandering onto the site and getting their bearings. A band has to be pretty special and be able to deliver a red hot performance in order to first grab, and then hold, this type of audience’s attention for the length of the concert.
Well, not only are the Lee Boys able to pull off snaring this audience right from the word go, they have them in the palm of their hand all the way through the show. Now I hadn’t been familiar with the band before listening to and watching this disc, and hadn’t remembered that they were a gospel group, so it was a bit of a surprise on the first song to hear them calling out to the audience to testify and bear witness like they would if they were conducting a church service. To be honest I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the lyrics either because the music had blown me away so much, so it wasn’t even until the break of the first song, “Let’s Celebrate” that I realized I was watching what was basically a tent revival meeting.
The House of God churches that gave birth to sacred steel integrated music into the whole service. Citing Psalms 150:4 “Praise Him with stringed instruments” and 149:3 “Let them praise His name in the dance,” the steel guitarist who leads the band works with the congregation’s minister so that in addition to playing actual songs, they work as punctuation for sermons and all other activities in the church.
When you watch The Lee Boys you quickly realize you might be able to take the music out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the music. However, as in the case with almost any art that’s truly inspired by belief, what makes these guys so great is the passion they bring to what they’re doing.
Sure the pedal steel guitar laying down the leads for the songs is a novelty that captures your attention for the first couple of songs, but once you get past that point there has to be something that holds your attention. Obviously part of that is the fact that these guys are an incredibly talented band. They might look like they’re playing loose and sloppy, but are so tight you could throw a pin on them and it would bounce a mile straight up. Yet I’ve seen and heard plenty of bands who can play like that, who don’t hold my attention or captivate me the way The Lee Boys are able to.
You can’t help but be caught up in their energy from the moment they step on stage and start playing. Brothers Derrick and Keith on lead vocals don’t stop even when they’re not singing. During solos either one of them could be calling out to either the player or the audience exhorting and pushing them to have a good time, dance, sing, testify, or whatever they want to do that might demonstrate their joy at being alive. For that’s what it feels like. Their concerts are really celebrating the joy of being alive, and it doesn’t matter whether you believe in the same things they do or not because you can’t help but be caught up in all the fun.
Unlike a lot of gospel bands, judging by this concert anyway, The Lee Boys play their own music. The one song on the disc that wasn’t written by a current band member, “Joyful Sounds”, was written by their late brother Glenn, a former member of the group. Another difference between them and most other gospel groups is their sound. For while you normally can hear in gospel music the roots of secular forms of African American music, The Lee Boys are a melting pot of soul, blues, R&B, and funk, coming together in what can only be described as a joyful noise.
The copy of the DVD I received was only a screener, so I’ve no idea if there are any special features as it didn’t have menus, just started right in on the concert without any preamble. The sound quality was great and the camera work was a nice mixture of onstage shots, including close ups of individual leads, mixed with the occasional crowd shot. It’s interesting to watch as the concert progressed the crowd growing increasingly responsive to the music and the band’s entreaties to have fun and dance. By the end they’ve managed to get everybody up on their feet and moving to the music.
Sacred steel gospel music has been pretty much unknown outside of the communities where it’s been played until the last few years. However with releases like The Lee Boys Live At Bonnaroo and bands playing at festivals and gigs across North America the rest of us are finally being let in on the secret. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never heard anything quite like it before and once you have you won’t forget it in hurry.