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Concert Review: On a soggy Sunday, Randolph and his band do their best for a tired crowd

The day was gray, drizzly and humid, but Robert Randolph and the Family Band did their best to shine a little light on the tired, soggy crowd that remained to see them. The final act of this year’s festival, Randolph and company sauntered onstage a bit after their scheduled time, as did Friday’s headliners Los Lonely Boys. But where LLB made missteps from the first moments of their set, Randolph and his band succeeded.

The band walked up with no fanfare, and Randolph set to playing unaccompanied steel guitar. His tone and style, like no other, was impressive as always. Whereas most steel players are comfortable in supportive roles, Randolph is different. He runs his steel through distortion and wah pedals, turning the instrument into a psych-gospel weapon.

Suddenly, the band kicked in, Randolph announced a song called “The March,” and the group was off and running. This first number was a long instrumental with oodles of soloing from Randolph. It was long and winding, and it had a gospel-meets-Allman-Brothers feel that worked well as an opener. Twice, Randolph took his mic off the stand, walked away from his steel guitar, and tried to get the folks on the sides — the ones not seated in lawn chairs — to dance. Some did. Randolph was charmingly low-key, playing incredible phrases and then swigging from a Coke can or reaching down to tie his shoe.

“Amped Up” was next, and Randolph took his traditional seated position behind a different, lower steel guitar. The song was little more than a way to rouse the rabble with some easy cheers, but it got fists pumping and arms waving.

A cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” was next, an early favorite of the crowd, which grew in size during Randolph’s first few songs even though the rain was getting ever-so-slightly stronger as time went by. Towards the end of the number, after it seemed Randolph had shot the works, he dropped some licks that almost had an Eddie Van Halen feel to them. No question, the man is a master of his instrument.

“Press On” featured lyrics about rain that Randolph seemed to emphasize to acknowledge the grumpy weather and his audience that was stuck in it, and “Get Ready” again tried to get the attendees moving. They did in pockets, and in other places throughout the park, couples huddled under umbrellas, chatting. One duo sat next to each other in a half-tent, reading books while the band played.

While the band was solid and impressive, a few of their tunes lingered for too long and were too repetitive to sustain a buzz, and the tired, waterlogged crowd didn’t have enough energy to throw back at the band. Not a killer ending to the bluesfest, but not bad at all.

Stray observation: The sea of lawn chairs is a tradition at the bluesfest, but it’s obvious that the bands might enjoy themselves a bit more if the standing, dancing folks in the crowd weren’t weirdly pushed off to either side of the stage. Why keep the most physically-engaged members of the crowd in the margins? Perhaps a good plan for next year’s festival would find the area directly in front of the stage being reserved for standing room. It would allow for better communication between band and audience, making a better show for everyone.

Tony Bennett writes music reviews for the News Tribune.