Album Review: The Word, ‘Soul Food’
In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was good ... but now it's even better.
There's your quick takeaway from this review of Soul Food, which reunites the members of the Word — keyboardist John Medeski, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, and North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew — a whopping 14 years after they convened to record their self-titled debut. Bringing together a cadre of brilliant musicians in praise of a higher power, that album was noteworthy for delivering worship music with a little more heat and virtuosity than you tend to hear on the mass market, but it was still something less than the sum of its parts — always enjoyable, yet never quite as transcendent as one might hope, given the players and the project's meaning.
That ecstatic barrier is shattered repeatedly with Soul Food, and quite a bit of the difference rests on Randolph, who — while still shockingly talented — was just beginning his career the first time around. In the interim, he's released six albums and toured nearly nonstop with his Family Band, and all that seasoning has made him a looser, more confident player, one whose steel leads thrum and soar joyously throughout the band's performances without ever hogging the spotlight.
It helps, of course, that he's in the midst of such a talented bunch. Medeski, whose work has arguably been most widely heard through his membership in the jazz-funk outfit Medeski, Martin & Wood, is a gifted improviser who uses his keys as the swirling glue that holds everything together. The members of the Allstars, meanwhile, have been steeped in country blues since before they could crawl; Luther and Cody's father, legendary recording artist and producer Jim Dickinson, was a lifelong student of the stuff. They know how to make a pocket tight enough to groove, but loose enough to move.
Older and wiser than they were in 2001 — and with several tours together as the Word between them — they put their heads and hearts back together for another 13 tracks with Soul Food, and we're all richer for it. If your concept of gospel music includes fusty old hymns and/or melisma-laden vocals, set those notions aside; most of these songs are instrumental, for one thing, and all things being equal, the record sounds less like a church than a party. (One where they're probably serving the world's best barbecue.)
If you love music that dares you not to dance, get this album. If you love great gobs of roiling keyboards, get this album. If you love guitar solos that make you cock your head and squint with delight, get this album. Whether you go to church every Sunday or count yourself cheerfully among the heathens, there's absolutely no arguing with Soul Food; in fact, the only really crummy thing about the record is the thought that we might have to wait 14 more years for another helping
In the meantime, get yourself to the table. Amen and hallelujah.