Fourteen years elapsed between the Word's raucous self-titled debut offering and Soul Food. All the members of this supergroup -- pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, keyboardist John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars (Chris Chew and Cody and Luther Dickinson) -- have had full and demanding careers in the interim. Randolph was only 22, had played one gig outside his church, and had just one released track when he joined his bandmates in 2000. Soul Food was cut in New York and at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio in Memphis, and picks up where its predecessor left off. Musically, this is a much tighter record -- none of these tunes get to the six-minute mark -- but the raw, joyous, exploratory spontaneity remains; it's just more focused. Blues, R&B, and gritty roots rock & roll are plentiful here, as is a more formal approach to gospel, but there are other sounds too. On the first soul-drenched single (and album opener), "New Word Order," gritty Southern R&B meets the prophetic Pentecostal tradition of Randolph's spiritual home, the Church of God in Christ. On "Come by Here," a squalling minor-key juke joint blues runs head-on into pre-Thomas Dorsey African-styled chants in a chorale of male voices. Randolph's solo screams atop Medeski's spiraling B-3 and keyboards and Luther's razored fills. Suggesting a young Mavis Staples, Ruthie Foster guests on "When I See the Blood," a straight-up Southern gospel romp. Randolph and Medeski trade fills and fours throughout, and the entire clattering rhythm section gets as funky as it does gritty. The first of the two parts of the title track is framed inside a breezy Polynesian vibe, kissed by soul, while the second crosses funky R&B guitar with martial snares and breaks, punchy organ chords, and Randolph's many-toned pedal steel coloring in the frames. It eventually becomes a rave-up where the spirit of the Allman Brothers Band (whose second "home" was playing N.Y.C.) meets the groove of Otha Turner's Fife and Drum Corps at Stax! "You Brought the Sunshine" is straight-up reggae with a dubwise Chew bassline framing a gospel piano, bluesy pedal steel, and jazzed-up B-3 and guitar vamps. "Swamp Road" feels like Booker T. & the MG's playing in a shake shack. Luther's tough jazz-blues solo above Cody's in-the-pocket beat steals the cut. Amy Helm duets with Luther on the set closer, "Glory Glory." What begins as a rowdy country boogie becomes a Southern-fried country gospel stomper, adorned by Wurlitzer piano, hard-swinging acoustic six-string with flatpicking breaks, brushed toms and snares, thumping standup bass, and wily pedal steel. It's a fitting sendoff because it is an affirmation of all the Word express as a band. All these years on, Soul Food may sound as revolutionary as its predecessor, but it is stronger and far more adventurous musically.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek