The Word's music draws on the sounds of Southern worship, but the band itself worships at the altar of jam. Stretching two sets over more than three hours, the five-piece group touched on a handful of gospel classics, but its sound has more to do with the Allman Brothers than Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
When the Word's other members picked Robert Randolph to play pedal steel on their self-titled 2000 album, he was virtually unknown outside the devotional circuit. Seven years later, he is arguably its marquee player, acknowledged as a contemporary master of his chosen instrument. Seated at the front of the Electric Factory's stage Friday, he dazzled the crowd with his technique. There were few words sung and even fewer spoken, but Randolph's pedal was the voice the songs needed, swooping and soaring with the expressiveness of an opera singer.
Joining him for a four-date mini-tour were keyboardist John Medeski of jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, and the North Mississippi All-Stars: brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, and bassist Chris Chew. The five have reunited only a few times since 2001, but their rapport hardly seems to have dimmed. At one point, Randolph moved to the drum kit so that Cody Dickinson could take up an electrified washboard. Playing energetically before he had quite found his seat, Randolph let a drumstick fly out of his hand. Moments later, Luther Dickinson was using it to tap at his guitar strings.
Although the Word settled comfortably into a Southern rock groove with "Joyful Sounds," Medeski consistently played against the grain. His instruments, Hammond organ and electric piano, were true to the genre, but he played in staccato bursts instead of mellifluous lines. The Dickinsons, however, embraced convention with all four arms, Luther playing high-speed blues riffs and Cody leaning heavily on bass-drum flurries and round-the-kit rolls.
The evening's set list drew on the profane as well as the sacred: Woven into the mix were covers of James Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" and Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'." But as the night grew long and extended jam followed extended jam, a sameness crept into the mix, and what was once inspired began to seem a tad tiresome. In the break between sets, the house PA played Booker T and the MGs' "Green Onions," a reminder that Southern-friend instrumentals can be especially tasty in small portions. Watching the Word was like staying too long at a barbecue. The food stays great, but your belly starts to ache.