Hallelujah, praise the lord and pass the hot boogie gumbo. It's A-Town Get Down time again, and this year's headliners are well-versed in stirring the proverbial pot. Along with the Randall Bramblett Band, all Southern soul and Dixie roll, A-Town's got the Lee Boys, one of the very best sacred steel bands in the world. Their music is infectious, supernatural and imbued with the power to move you.
First, a reminder that A-Town Get Down, in its fourth year, is an all-day event combining live music, live art, and workshops on topics related to cultivating creativity. It started as a joyful memorial to Alex Townsend (his buds called him A-Town), a SCAD student killed in a car accident in 2010.
The event has grown exponentially each year, bringing musicians (both professional and aspiring), artists (the same), aficionados and appreciators together for a day of celebrating the arts and just how good they can be for us all.
Local performers include Waits & Co., Niche, the Lovely Locks, Omingnome, Port City Readers and others. Charleston's Sol Driven Train is scheduled, as is the great guitarist Walter Parks, who resides in Savannah for half the year. Then there's Eye Candy, with former Drive-By Truckers Shonna Tucker and John Neff (John's a Savannah native).
It's an all-ages celebration: The Savannah Children's Choir and the Savannah Arts Academy Eclipse ensemble are making return appearances.
The six-member Lee Boys are brothers Alvin, Derrick and Keith Lee, and nephews Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (7-string bass) and Earl Walker (drums). "Sacred steel" describes a form of electric rhythm 'n' blues music originally developed for the exuberant services at House of God Pentecostal churches in Florida (the Lee Boys hail from the Miami area).
The key is the pedal steel guitar (played, in the hands of young master Collier, like Johnny Winter with his long hair on fire). It gives the music a fiery tear, perfect for discovering the holy spirit when the moment comes, and even better when it's backed up by percolating bass and drums laying down a funky beat, Alvin's snaky guitar lines and cool vocals from Derrick and Keith.
CS: Did the band literally start in the church?
Alvin Lee: Yes, we're one of the originals in the church. We and my brother Glenn kind of developed a style in the church, coming up hearing Harry Nelson and all those great ones. My father actually played the steel, and he taught his boys. But we've been doing this all our lives, ever since '78, playing in the church. My father died in 2000, and my brother Glenn died in 2000. And once he died, I just decided to take our style of music outside of the four walls. Robert Randolph was just starting.
It's was like "Al, you got to take y'all's style out, some more bluesy and kind of funky ...." That's what kind of pushed me. Then I had my nephews, Little Alvin, Roosevelt and Earl was coming up at that time. So I formed the band and we've just been doing it ever since.
CS: In the church, at least in the early days, wasn't it all non-secular music?
AL: Well, it was, but the Lee Boys were kind of the little young rebels at the time. Early '80s. We were able to intertwine some of the stuff we heard out there, a little Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. Kinda throw some bluesy riffs within some of the original sacred steel riffs we were doing in the church. It was tradition but during our jams we would just go at it. So we kind of changed the whole trend inside the church. That's kind of what led us to create a Lee Boys style within the church, with all the great ones like the Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent and Ted Beard and Calvin Cooke. We were like that last young generation, and then all these little young ones like Robert and Roosevelt and them came up.
CS: Were you thinking, early on, that you would one day take the music out of the church?
AL: We never thought. My father was one of those strict Pentecostal preachers. He kinda had a real strong hold on the family, and when he left it was within eight months that my brother Glenn died. He was the co-founder of the band with me. It was really a shock for us. And my young nephews like Roosevelt, they were only 15, 16. I coached them. Roosevelt learned from Glenn. All of us played, but Roosevelt, I knew he kind of "had it." You can sense those young ones, coming up, that they got it. So we just went from there, doing festivals and going out from there.
CS: You guys fit in so well with the other jam bands at festivals. You play with everybody. Did it take a while for those musicians to accept you, because your music is a little bit different?
AL: If you think about it, we were doing jam music in the church, in a sense. We would start jamming and we would be playing 40 minutes on one song. We would go from a slow boogie jam to real fast, keeping a straight-pocket groove. We were just improvising. Me and Glenn would throw different types of melodies within those jams. And that's still what we do now. In the middle of a jam, Roosevelt will throw a Michael Jackson. And we were doing that in church.
About seven or eight years ago, we were playing at Merlefest. And our manager was saying "You gotta let this dude sit on the stage." And I'm one of the original church boys—I was like "I don't know this guy."
Man, the guy came to sit in and the crowd was going crazy. We thought we were just jamming. I didn't know who it was. It was Bob Weir. That's what this music is. It's just been one of those type experiences.
CS: If you DON'T get a crowd whipped up, are you doing something wrong?
AL: In a big crowd, if we see one person moving, touched by our music, our job is done. Because that was really the sole purpose of me starting the Lee Boys. It was to share music that we created, and we were blessed to have a heritage from it. To touch people doing it ... that's why I keep it true to the sacred steel. We throw some covers in there, but the Lee Boys are sacred steel that's infused with a lot of funk and blues. That's why we can play with so many people, from John Mayer to Warren Haynes to the McCoury Brothers. It's been a real fun ride.