, Salem, MA

October 31, 2013

Sacred steel

Legends of steel guitar bring their music to Larcom Theatre

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — The steel guitar has many voices, some of which are familiar. It was invented for playing the slow, gliding notes of Hawaiian music, and it also puts the twang in country-western.

But when promoter Peter Van Ness first heard the Slide Brothers, all four of whom will be playing pedal steel at Beverly’s Larcom Theatre on Saturday, he wasn’t even sure what instruments they were playing.

“We listened and I thought, it sounds like a Hammond B3 organ,” said Van Ness, whose business, Gimme Live, is based in Gloucester. “The minute we heard them, we were hooked.”

What the Slide Brothers play is sacred steel, a gospel style that emerged in the 1930s during services at The House of God Church.

In addition to mimicking other instruments, it copies the urgent voices of singers in the choir and, at times, even suggests the pleading of a pastor.

“If they’re preaching or they go into high gear or praise the lord, then the music boosts or backs that up,” said Calvin Cooke, the oldest of the four Slide Brothers. “It helps urge the people to get more happy and urges him to preach a little harder.”

The piercing notes and urgent tone of sacred steel reached mainstream audiences with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, which released a debut album in 2002.

Randolph, who also started in the church, acknowledged the men who played before him by producing their album, “Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers,” which debuted in February.

“We’d been touring with him off and on ever since he got started, about 15 years ago,” Cooke said. “Then, later on down the line, he said he had an idea of bringing us old guys together, playing the guitars. It finally came in where he did it.”

In addition to Cooke, the group includes Aubrey Ghent and two actual brothers, Chuck and Darick Campbell.

With Cooke providing vocals, they play songs with a range of spiritual and secular messages.

Their album opens with an Allman Brothers tune, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” and includes “The Sky is Crying” by blues guitarist Elmore James.

“My family introduced me to Elmore James when we were small, when we would have a barbecue or fish fry,” Cooke said. “It sounded like steel guitar to them, and they would tell me to learn that piece”

“Praise You” has strong gospel roots, while a version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” breaks into testifying that recalls a minister and his congregation.

“We’ve been doing it so long, it just becomes a natural thing for us when we play,” Cooke said.

Cooke has written a song on the album, “Help Me Make It Through,” that could be either a prayerful relationship or a romantic one.

“When I’m alone I need someone to talk to / I need someone just to see me through ... Lord I need you / Now and forever more / help me make it through,” he sings.

While the Slide Brothers enjoy sharing the spirit that is the source of their music, they’re not trying to push a religious point of view.

“I don’t want to tell you I’m right / I don’t want to tell you you’re wrong,” Cooke sings on “Sunday School Blues.” “I don’t want to tell you anything / I’m just trying to sing my song.”

Cooke was born in Cleveland but moved to Detroit, where he worked as a janitor at Chrysler for 31 years before being laid off. His mother bought his first steel guitar at a pawn shop, because his hands couldn’t reach around the neck of a regular guitar.

Cooke places himself in a direct line of sacred steel players that started with Aubrey Ghent’s uncle, Willie Eason.

“He would be No. 1, and they had a line of people that started off with him,” he said. “I would possibly be two, the Campbells would be three, and Robert Randolph would be fifth generation.”

The church these men have all belonged to was founded in the 1930s, grew mostly in the South and eventually split into three congregations.

“The two branches where steel guitar dominated were Jewell Dominion and Keith Dominion,” Cooke said. “We come from the Keith Dominion. One is more jazzed up, on the Jewell side. On the Keith side, it was more Hawaiian style. Each generation got more and more progressive.”

In addition to the gospel he learned at church and the occasional Elmore James, Cooke developed eclectic tastes in contemporary music.

“My cousin introduced me to Yes, because they were so different — to play steel. I would go to their concerts,” he said. “Then, I started branching off into Jimi Hendrix and different people from that era.”

Each of the band members has a unique style, and they take turns playing lead.

“I play with a lot of delayed sound,” Cooke said. “I use a lot of wild sounds in my picking. We all mix it together.”

The Slide Brothers’ combination of steel guitars is unique, Cooke said, and makes each concert a journey for the audience.

“We start rocking it out,” he said, “and bring another flavor they’ve never experienced.”


What: Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers, with Michael Thomas Doyle opening
When: Saturday, Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7.
Where: Larcom Theatre, 13 Wallis St., Beverly
Tickets & info: Tickets $19, $29, $39 at or call 978-525-9093