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An icy wail pierces the air, high-pitched and quavering, enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Slowly, the pedal steel guitar slides down home with a bluesy flourish to a low rumble of bass chords and drumbeats from the band. A preacher breaks the lull with "Praise the Lord!" and "Can I get a witness?," the guitarist answering with his own electric, exalted riffs. The calls to testify come with impassioned fury, blaring through the speakers, as if the kingdom has come at last, while the pedal steel pleads feverishly in response. The tension rises as the rhythm revs like an anxious engine. Just when the people can take no more, the dam bursts, the pearly gates are flung open, and the music shakes the walls and brings the people to their feet, clapping and stomping and praising with the full power of the Holy Spirit.
Hallelujah -- it's another Sunday morning at the House of God, a national, black Pentecostal church with 20-some parishes spread throughout South Florida. This one's in Perrine, in south Miami-Dade County, and the Lee Boysare on the bandstand. The six-member "sacred steel" group (as the music's called) is made up of three Lee brothers -- Alvin on guitar, singers Keith and Derrick -- and their three nephews -- Alvin Cordy on bass, drummer Earl Walker, and Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel. Several of the Lee Boys have played Pompano Beach's popular House of God church, where resident steel whiz Darryl Blue holds court a short drive from the Deerfield Beach church where the great Sonny Treadway can be heard. But today's a special occasion: with several of its members spread throughout Florida, the band rarely performs together at its home church.
Instead, the group has been playing stages from France to Canada, taking its gospel-blues, high-octane celebration to the masses. This summer, as with the past three, it's gone on an extended Canadian tour, plowing through two weeks of gigs in and around Vancouver. Following that, the band returned to the Prince George Folk Festival in British Colombia for the second straight year. It's not a stretch to say the Lee Boys have more fans in western Canada than in South Florida.
"Yeah, we're definitely developing a following," Alvin Lee, also the band's manager, says by phone from Vancouver. "I mean, we had such an impression on the people here, they wanted us back again. And actually, in South Florida, we do have a good fan base. It's just that because of how our schedule is, we don't go back to the area a lot. That's what we're trying to push now -- we want to build a bigger following in Florida."
Formed in 2001 after the untimely passing of Glenn Lee, the fourth Lee brother and a musical prodigy considered one of the top young players in the national House of God hierarchy, the Lee Boys can all credit their virtuosic ability to the church's high musical standards. Music is an integral part of the celebration in these holy roller-style services, and it's all centered around the pedal steel guitar.
Since sacred steel was "discovered" in the mid-'90s by the outside world, players like Robert Randolph, who started out in a House of God church in Orange, New Jersey, have burst onto the national scene. The Lee Boys hope to taste a little bit of that success, enough to allow the band to make music its full-time gig. As it stands now, brothers Derrick and Keith are still pursuing outside careers, taking vacation time to go on tours, while the rest of the band pursues music exclusively.
"We're definitely pushing for everyone to do the band full-time," Alvin says. "But right now, we're just trying to set everything in order, and I'm trying to do it so we have a big record out and have the bookings and the following to support us."
The band has already moved in that direction, signing last year with a new booking agency, Skyline Music, that represents neo-roots acts like Solomon Burke, Victor Wooten, and Oteil and the Peacemakers. The association paid off with the Lee Boys opening for B.B. King and the Blind Boys of Alabama last June.
The band took another step last year when it signed with Arhoolie Records, the home of sacred steel artists like Calvin Cooke and the Campbell Brothers. From there, the group assembled in Gainesville to record its first album for the label, Say Yes!, released at the end of March. It's a well-produced set of exuberant, high-powered jams interspersed with a few slow burners -- a shining display of the Lee Boys' rock-solid, gospel blues sound.
"We wanted to make something that represented what we were actually doing," Alvin says. "The first album was OK, but that was almost three and a half years ago, and we more or less did that on our own. But with Arhoolie, we were able to go into a bigger studio -- it was a lot more professional -- and we did the whole recording in one day, because we already knew what we were going to do. And we had a good engineer that had a nice system, and he let us feel free to do what we do, and I think that's the best way to record a group of guys like us."
As proven on Say Yes!, the Lee Boys' music is not fully gospel and not quite secular. Though there's the occasional reference to the Lord, all their songs are inspired by the universal spirit of the House of God church. There's also a slight touch of country in a few tracks, some jazz influences here and there, and lots of extended blues-rock jams.
"We want to go more mainstream but stick to what we do," Alvin says. "Every place we go, the people are receptive with the style of music we're doing. And even if we go into a club setting, we're still singing about God. We want to be the people that change the trends of what's acceptable and what's not. We believe it's in our music, really. And I think it's the music that's touched everyone when they deal with us."
Back at the Perrine House of God church, the Lee Boys are reaching out to their people, connecting the entire room to a higher power. They're clearly thrilled to be back home, playing to the congregation they grew up with. But these are believers, and they already know the power of the music. Soon, the Lee Boys will be shepherding a whole new flock.