On the surface, there would seem to be a lot of similarities between the Winston-Salem group called Marvelous Funkshun and acclaimed pedal-steel player Robert Randolph’s Family Band. After all, both groups prominently feature the crying, rubbery, liquid-mercury sound of the pedal steel alongside deep funk grooves and a jam-heavy approach to their songs. And both outfits acknowledge a debt to the Sacred Steel genre, a vein of gospel music that uses the pedal steel as flexibly and emotionally as a human voice. But a closer look reveals some key differences.
Randolph’s band, though all skilled musicians, essentially serves as a platform for his jaw-dropping playing. It’s easy enough to imagine another player taking someone’s place in the Family Band and not making that much of a difference, musically. Marvelous Funkshun is a much more democratic group. Chris Johnson’s steel shares equal time with guitarist Sam Robinson, who serves as the band’s main songwriter, and bassist Will Bagley. In fact, as skillful as Johnson’s solos are, Bagley might be the band’s secret weapon: His bass solos are dizzying displays of technique.
Also, the band, which will play at Gottrocks in Greenville next Thursday, focuses far less on gospel in their music than Randolph does. They tend more towards heavy funk with a great deal of ensemble playing, which is exactly what Robinson and Bagley were aiming for when they formed the group. “We not only wanted to be able to play original music and tour with it, but we wanted a band that had an identity behind it,” Robinson says. “We try to draw on our individual backgrounds and include the styles and feels that embody who we are as individuals and represent it with the group.”
That sound involves a great deal of improvisation, especially on stage. “The songs are written out, but they have sections that allow for the musicians to improvise,” Robinson says. “We don’t have any particular order for who leads these sections, but we like to see where it goes. The jams and the general flow are definitely part of a musical conversation. Being able to communicate musically is an important part of any live band and listening is the key. We try every show to listen as closely as possible and have an actual ‘conversation’ versus the band backing up guitar solos or whatnot all night. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, too.”
As for the pedal steel, Chris Johnson says it creates an entirely different dynamic than another guitar player or keyboard player might. “I personally think that the pedal steel is a very versatile instrument that covers a ton of sonic territory,” he says.
Robinson adds that the instrument has so much history in so many different kinds of music that it can’t help but expand the horizons of any ensemble it’s used in. “The pedal steel was first popularized by country artists like the late Buddy Emmons half a century ago,” he says. “But it evolved behind the scenes in the House of God church as a lead instrument, which then influenced players like Robert Randolph and Roosevelt Collier to expand the music into rock, funk and blues. Chris is just building upon that legacy to take pedal steel guitar music to even further heights.”
And that, in turn, pushed Marvelous Funkshun to create an original sound out of familiar elements. “I think music these days has to draw on as many influences as possible to stay relevant and fresh,” Robinson says, “and artists from different genres focus on the same kinds of things such as song craftsmanship and musicianship. We strive to write songs that have a little more meaning than just a catchy hook.”