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Record Review 

Robert Randolph understands that the jam crowd is more open minded and dedicated than fickle church-goers.

So the master of sacred steel music -- basically buoyant gospel played on pedal steel guitar -- has upped the volume, highlighted the funk and preached his musical sermons in clubs, bars and concert halls far from the New Jersey House of God where he honed his approach.

Randolph's debut studio release takes the pedal steel into uncharted waters, similar to what Hendrix did with his six-string over 35 years ago. Resembling a cross between a synthesizer and slide guitar, the instrument emits an ear-piercing, sweeping, glissando clatter when operated by Randolph.

The songs on Unclassified aren't groundbreaking -- the ballads seem like watered-down Stevie Wonder and the gospel-fried rockers are based on little more than repeated licks -- yet like Sly Stone, an obvious influence, Randolph's style is so invigorating and explosive, he grabs you by the music's sheer exuberance.

His "family band," comprised of two cousins, provides supple support, laying down the high-voltage blues, funk and rock rhythms. But it's Randolph's fiery playing and positive -- not necessarily spiritual -- songs that blow this album into overdrive.

You can check your religious beliefs at the door, or bring 'em in. Either way Robert Randolph is playing your song.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band play the Tabernacle Sat., Dec. 27. $22.50.

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