A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Robert Randolph, New Amsterdams and Nevermore.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: The music of Robert Randolph may have been born in a church, but the pedal steel guitar whiz is a direct disciple of the mid-1970s party funk of Parliament. With a genre-busting sound and a groove-happy feel, a live show from Randolph & the Family Band is a joyful affair, where getting the crowd on its feet outshines any spiritual undertones.
Randolph began playing at the House of God church, a New Jersey ministry that has incorporated the pedal steel into its services since the 1930s. Now in his mid-20s, Randolph studied players of the complex instrument as a churchgoing child, and eventually found members of jam bands such as the North Mississippi All-Stars and Medeski, Martin & Wood worshiping his talents.
An audition tape got him a gig opening for the All-Stars, and the past two years have seen Randolph rise from a relative unknown to a minor celebrity on the jam band circuit. All-Stars Cody and Luther Dickinson were so smitten with Randolph that the two recruited him for one-off gospel project the Word, a critically adored group that also included John Medeski.
Last year's independently released "Live at the Wetlands" (Sci-Fi) featured fast-paced, gospel-tinged songs that showcased the group's musical dexterity, and proved the Family Band could deliver outside of a church. Influences cross musical borders, with a nod to Jimi Hendrix one second and a dip into Stevie Wonder-influenced soul the next.
Warner Bros. Records signed the group last year, and Randolph & the Family Band released their first studio set, "Unclassified,"two weeks ago. Produced by Jim Scott (Jayhawks, Tom Petty), the set distills the band's 10-20 minute live jams into four-minute songs for easier consumption, but little is lost in the translation.
With airy melodies and plentiful grooves, "Unclassified" features largely blues-based hip-shakers where Randolph's pedal steel does all the singing necessary. It's an album that could easily sit alongside releases from the Allman Brothers, Santana and Buddy Guy.
"Unclassified" gives Randolph & the Family Band their first appearance on The Billboard 200, bowing last week at No. 145. It also sits at No. 4 on the magazine's Heatseekers chart. Randolph's last chart appearance came in 2001, when the Word's self-titled Ropeadope release topped the magazine's Top Blues Albums chart
Randolph & the Family Band can be seen through mid-September on the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, which also features N.E.R.D., Talib Kewli and the Roots.
GETTING UP THERE: While labelmate Chris Carrabba (aka Dashboard Confessional) graces magazine covers, Matthew Pryor has built a steady career of cult fandom through his groups Get Up Kids and the New Amsterdams. The former is a veteran emo rock act, while the New Amsterdams offer a quieter, more acoustic-driven affair.
The just-released "Worse for the Wear," on emo-centric Vagrant Records, is the sound of pop maturity, with graceful melodies that anchor a rather adult view of relationships. If Dashboard Confessional's songs are filled with all the melodrama of high school love, the New Amsterdams -- rounded out by the Get Up Kids' Ryan and Robert Pope -- offer a more tempered view of romance to which younger Dashboard fans may eventually graduate.
With its piano sprinkles, light banjo touches and mid-tempo tunes, "Worse for the Wear" is not all that different from the most recent effort from the Get Up Kids, "On a Wire." That 2002 release saw the group utilizing expanded instrumentation to move into a more moderate pop direction, and "Worse" arrives like a more subdued bookend to "On a Wire."
"Worse for the Wear" entered Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart last week at No. 42. While that's still a ways off from the debut week of "On a Wire," which pierced The Billboard 200 at No. 57 upon its arrival, "Worse" gives the New Amsterdams their best showing on any of Billboard's charts.
The group recently played some dates with Guster and will be on a headlining club tour through early September. The Get Up Kids, meanwhile, have begun work on their fourth full-length studio set, and plan to have the album in stores in early 2004.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Formed in Seattle in the mid-1990s, Nevermore's old-school metal was a bit out of step with the grunge that then ruled the city. With aggressive riffs that border on thrash, dramatic vocals and fancy guitar solos filling every crevice, Nevermore was not only disinterested in the trends of the time, but soldiered on through the rest of the decade as if nu-metal didn't exist.
The band recently released "Enemies of Reality" through indie Century Media. The set is the group's first since 2000's "Dead Heart, in a Dead World," widely hailed in metal circles as one of the stronger independent releases of the year. Tours followed with In Flames and labelmates Shadows Fall, acts that at the time were on the verge of breaking through to a wider audience, but the band was unable to ride the critical acclaim to mainstream success.
Now things are finally starting to look up. "Enemies of Reality," produced by Kelly Gray (Queensryche, Dokken), has become the band's first effort to crack any of Billboard's charts. From the vicious aggressiveness of the first single and title track, to the heavily textured and ballad-like "Tomorrow Turned Into Yesterday," the album continues Nevermore's quest to meld musicianship and melody without pummeling its audience.
"Enemies of Reality" bowed two weeks ago at No. 27 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart and entered the Independent Albums tally at No. 19. In two weeks, the album has sold approximately 5,500 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The band will be heading overseas for a European tour next month, and will launch an extensive U.S. jaunt in November with Hypocrisy and Children of Bodom.