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You don't often hear gospel music at an outdoor hippie gathering. Much more likely to cater to the stoner crowd are hip-hop artists with crossover appeal, like the Beastie Boys. But church music? That's never been a big draw at jam band concerts. Maybe it's the proselytizing or harmonized shout-outs to Jesus that audiences find hard to swallow. Folks who are tripping on hallucinogens usually don't do so while mouthing the words to "Amazing Grace."
But it's 3:30 on a sunny afternoon at Langerado Music Festival, which is, next to a Rainbow Gathering, the biggest local hippie soiree all year. And people in the audience are dancing, shouting, and praising the Lord in four-part harmony while smoking marijuana out of hand-blown glass and chugging beer. At first glance, the situation seems both powerful and disrespectful.
But Miami's bluesy-gospel outfit the Lee Boys are on-stage with the group's charismatic frontman, Roosevelt Collier, wailing away on the pedal steel guitar that sits in front of him and fans of jamtastic bands like Widespread Panic are partying hard to an unfamiliar music that until only a decade ago was confined to small Pentecostal churches along the East Coast. In fact, if it wasn't for the band on-stage, acts like the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph and the Family Band wouldn't have half the repertoire that they have today. Hell, those acts might not even exist.
When Luther Dickinson of the NM Allstars first met the Lee Boys several years ago, it was right after the guitarist had already made a name for himself mainly by hijacking some of the Miami group's material and recording it as if it were his own. But such an act wasn't entirely Dickinson's fault. At the time, circa 2001, he was moonlighting in a side project called the Word, which included John Medeski and New Jersey pedal steel player Robert Randolph. The group was making a killing playing summer festivals and catering to perpetual groove lovers of the Grateful Dead variety by offering a twangy, Southern-blues-meets-Negro-spiritual style of rock, laced with instrumental versions of gospel hymns.
Anyone who checked the liner notes from the group's self-titled LP would have seen that the album's two best songs, "Joyful Sounds" and "Call Him by His Name" were created by the Lee Boys a funky six-man gospel group out of Southern Florida that few people had ever heard of.
"When Luther [Dickinson] first met us, he was intrigued, because he didn't even know he'd been playing our stuff," says the group's co-founder, Alvin Lee. "He was such a huge fan of 'Joyful Sounds' that he wanted to know where it came from."
According to Alvin, the answer lies in the history of the House of God church the family was raised in, and the "sacred steel" guitar that's featured so prominently in its services. For years, dating back to the 1930s, pedal and lap guitars have been an integral part of the church's praise and worship routine the segment where music, testifying, and catching the Holy Ghost commonly occurs. In most African-American churches, the spiritual sounds of the Hammond B3 organ and a singing choir are enough to get congregations worked up, but within the House of God denomination, experiencing the wails and screeches of pedal steel can take that "Holy Ghost" emotion to a higher level. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, sometimes called sacred steel, it's an impressive hunk of metal, with eight to twelve strings laid out on a chrome frame and a half-dozen or so foot pedals attached to its base. Randolph, Aubrey Ghent, and the Campbell Brothers are some of the genre's biggest names to date.
Interestingly enough, the powerful chords and haunting shrieks this handmade guitar produces were virtually unknown to the secular world, until historian Robert Stone attended a House of God service and was so blown away that he began documenting everything he witnessed. Up until the early 1990s, and even today, playing "sacred steel" outside of the church was looked upon as sinful.
But the Lee Boys, who are all relatives, have a different perspective on the healing power it creates. The band is composed of three brothers, Alvin, Keith, and Derrick, plus their three nephews, Alvin Cordy Jr., Kenneth Walker, and the 23-year-old phenom Collier.
They've taken their firebrand style of gospel to the masses, and hippie kids dosing on ecstasy, mushrooms, and every drug under the sun can't help but be enthralled by the sweet sounds the Lee Boys create at jam band festivals across the nation. Of course, they've got their own feelings decidedly mixed about playing in front of recreational drug users night after night. But the fact that they've got a musical ministry that's reaching into subcultures where gospel hasn't had any success until now speaks volumes to them.
"I don't think the church realized how powerful this music really is," Alvin says almost apologetically. "No disrespect to the church, 'cause they look down on people playing outside the four walls of the church, but this music can't be denied. We touch a lot of people, and you definitely get your spirit filled when you listen to our songs."