This purported one-off "gospel" project involving jazz organist John Medeski (yep, that one), pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph (of Arhoolie's Sacred Steel series fame), and the North Mississippi Allstars (featuring both Cody and Luther Dickinson -- Jim Dickinson's swamprocking kids -- as well as bassist Chris Chew) was the most welcome and unexpected instrumental release of 2001. And as it burns through rock, blues, soul, funk, and of course, grooved-out gospel music with a take no prisoners attitude and a down in the grease feeling, it may be a candidate for album of that year, period. The story is long and complex but here's a thumbnail: Medeski, Martin & Wood were touring with the North Mississippi Allstars and both camps were playing the Sacred Steel series on Arhoolie on their buses. The idea for a gospel record was born and Randolph was chosen on the power of one tune: "Without a God" from the Sacred Steel Live album. Strange occurrences led to the band finally coming together, but the evidence here suggests that perhaps indeed Divine Providence was involved. Musically, the songs come from the Sacred Steel proceedings as well as public domain libraries. Tracks such as "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Without God," "At the Cross," and "I'll Fly Away" are familiar to listeners who've never so much as set foot inside a Protestant gospel church in their lives. But even if the titles are familiar, these arrangements, courtesy of Randolph, are not. They delve deep into the spirit of the music while caring little for its proper construction; any emotions that make their way into the mix are encouraged by the members of The Word. It is not uncommon for anger and despair to sidle up to joy and hope in these proceedings and be transformed into something like country shuffle blues or funky rural gospel that borders on the darkest of Delta blues. Randolph's pedal steel is firmly in the forefront, kept company by Medeski's chunky fills and comping and the dirty blues guitar of Luther Dickinson. When you add Chris Chew's pop-'em-in-the-pocket basslines that point everything in the right direction just ahead of the beat drums by Cody Dickinson (or his eerie, funky washboard rubbing), this is the roots band to beat. As funk and gospel roll out past the midnight hour from the halls of salvation to sin and back again, listeners understand implicitly the inherent contradictions in American music, that while the Puritan thought and body police may try to stomp out everything that looks, sounds, tastes, and feels good, there's the spirit of the Almighty encouraging the human part of us to enjoy creation. And enjoy you will, from the tip of your head to the balls of your feet -- until they get sore from falling around a dancefloor for a few hours -- or until you reluctantly slip this sacred slab back into its case and back onto the shelf. Music like this has no reason to turn back on itself and ask questions; it's too busy affirming the wondrous truth of how great it is to be alive. This set may dig from the well of the historical past, but it's a groundbreaking synthesis of American groove music.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek