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Sacred Steel

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."

Judging by the mesmerized white faces staring at the Lee Boys on-stage during their Langerado set, witnessing a live sacred steel performance isn't going to fade from these kids' memories anytime soon.

When the topic of Robert Randolph comes up, one can't help but notice a small level of tension. It was Randolph who came knocking, asking for the secrets of Southern pedal steel that he couldn't learn on his own in New Jersey, and it's Randolph who has garnered Grammy nominations and acclaim while his mentors still struggle for recognition in their own state.

Whereas the NM Allstars at least ask the Lee Boys to sit in on their sets, Randolph's management has the opposite approach, repeatedly denying the Lee Boys an opportunity to simply open for Randolph at his concerts.

"I guess they don't want any other sacred steel performers at his shows," Alvin offers half-heartedly. But then he perks up. "See, our music is still gospel. We're not changing the words for anybody. We don't hold any animosity towards Robert. He opened a lot of doors for us — but our music is gospel and we're proud to share that with people."

What Alvin didn't say was that, while the Lee Boys' music is true gospel, Randolph's mainstream tunes have strayed from the path, but that message was clearly implied.

Alvin is proud to be bringing together local pedal steel players from across South Florida this weekend for a special one-time jam. Aubrey Ghent's son A.J. will be there, and a host of other top-notch pedal steel performers will sit in with the Lee Boys as well. Alvin considers it an all-star occasion.

"There are some dynamite steel players down here, and this show is going to be a lot of fun for folks that want to experience this music."