The Lee Boys – Live On The East Coast
Following a Biblical passage in Psalms encouraging Christians to generate praise to God with stringed instruments, the House of God churches incorporated the pedal steel guitar into their worship services, often in place of the organ. A split lead to the formation of two denominations, the Keith and Jewel Dominions, both featuring the steel guitar. Early pioneers like brothers Troman and Willie Eason plus Bishop Lorenzo Harrison developed the exciting sound known to whip worshipers into a spiritual frenzy.
Just before the turn of the century, Arhoolie Records brought what became known as sacred steel music into the public consciousness with a series of recordings by a newer generation of musicians raised in the tradition including the Campbell Brothers, Sonny Treadway, Aubrey Ghent, and Calvin Cooke. These artists frequently performed at blues festivals to great acclaim. It took another steel guitar wizard, Robert Randolph, to take the music beyond a niche market to world-wide acceptance.
In 2005. the Lee Boys released their Say Yes recording on Arhoolie, featuring brothers Alvin,Derrick, and Keith Lee supported their nephews Alvin Cordy, Jr. on bass and Earl Walker on drums. Another nephew, Roosevelt Collier, showed that he had plenty to say on his steel guitar. That line-up is featured on the new live recording, with Chris Johnson taking over the pedal steel chair for Collier, who is pursuing his own career but still does some shows with the band. Recorded at three shows in Virginia, North Carolina, and their home state of Florida, the disc showcases the Lee Boys working hard to deliver a message of salvation wrapped around a pulsating musical core.
Opening with three songs from the public domain, starting with the hymn “In The Morning,” giving Johnson a chance to get the audience fired up. The brothers take “Walk With Me Lord” down a darker path while pleading for spiritual companionship. Keith and Derrick Lee handle the lead vocals throughout the disc while Alvin plays guitar and adds backing vocals. The power of the band’s live show shines through on a rousing take of “Don’t Let The Devil Ride,” with Johnson trying to channel Duane Allman through his instrument. Cordy, Jr. lays down a popping bass line to introduce the Staple Singers hit, “I’ll Take You There,” with the pedal steel lurking in the background. After a short bass solo, Johnson sets off in full flight, creating a burst of musical ecstasy.
The formula continues throughout the disc. The rhythm section sets a frantic pace on “Come On Help Me Lift Him Up,” and the brothers make Alvin’s original a highlight with some tight vocal harmonizing, which they repeat on Rev. James Cleveland’s “Lord Help Me To Hold Out,” before stepping back so Johnson and guest Rick Lollar can engage in a heated guitar exchange. “Testify” was the title track of the band’s last album, released seven years ago. One of Alvin’s originals, it weaves gospel, funk, and rock influences to create a modern version of praise music that is sure to inspire anyone in hearing range.
Brother Derrick makes two contributions, with “Praise You” suffering a bit from a tentative vocal. But “Walk With Me, ” inspired by the Grateful Dead legacy, has Johnson once again demonstrating his complete mastery of the pedal steel through a series of rousing solos. The staple of Dead shows, “Turn On Your Love Light,” is a natural fit, although listeners will undoubtedly wish that Johnson would have been given more space to expand on his red-hot string bending. The brothers interpretation of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Got To Move” reinvents the somber classic into a high-energy rave-up, with Issac Corbett adding some rudimentary harp licks as the band rocks hard, eliciting one more outburst from Johnson.
Perhaps the Lee Boys should make a point of recording all of their future releases live. They are certainly right at home on stage, with every track brimming with a palpable, invigorating level of energy. Any thought that the departure of Collier would diminish the band’s impact are quickly laid to rest. Johnson’s star shines bright throughout. After a long wait, fans of the Lee Boys will certainly treasure this addition to the sacred steel legacy!