Ordinarily, church is not considered a bastion of rock ‘n’
rolling music. But the sacred steel tradition of the House of God Pentecostal
church is anything but staid, incorporating as it does the rhythm and heated
guitar-whipping passion of rock. Over the past 10 years sacred steel has become
a genre unto itself, attracting fans of blues, soul, country, jazz and rock as
well as gospel. Some of its foremost practitioners are the Campbell Brothers,
who give a rare Southland concert this weekend at Caltech.

Jamband hero Robert Randolph is sacred steel’s best-known
progeny, having forged his Hendrix-like style as a teenager playing pedal steel
at his northern New Jersey church before being discovered at the first Sacred
Steel Convention in Florida in 2000. But while Randolph has graduated to a
hybrid, secular style and a successful career playing festivals and theatres
with his Family Band, the Campbell Brothers — Chuck (pedal steel), Darick
(lap steel), Phillip (guitar) and Phillip’s son, Carlton (drums) — have
remained securely bonded to their church roots. They’re now playing concert
halls but they continue to perform in churches too, and the bulk of their music
comes from the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal repertoire: traditionals
arranged by Chuck and Phillip, plus original compositions and inspirational pop
standards like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Put
a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Chuck, their de facto bandleader, incorporates rock
distortion and wah-wah pedals into his playing and is widely acknowledged as
one of the most innovative and technically proficient pedal steel players
working in any genre. His “artistic excellence” was recognized by the National
Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship in 2004. Unlike
Randolph, who makes his axe sound more like a frenetic slide guitar than a
pedal steel, Chuck stumps fellow musicians with weird tunings and sounds that
can’t be replicated on other instruments.

Music in most church traditions is created for organ or
piano, and is more strictly melodic. But electric steel guitar has been a
central element of Holiness-Pentecostal worship since brothers Willie and
Troman Eason introduced it to their church in the 1930s, and the music that
evolved incorporated not only the call-and-response, testifying format of
traditional gospel but the elastic rhythm and intensity of R&B. Lap steel
and pedal steel were subsequently introduced as well. Pedal steel, a one- or
two-necked instrument on legs whose tabletop-like appearance often makes it the
butt of jokes (“What’s that you’re playing, an ironing board?”), is defined
primarily by one characteristic: an edgy, often otherworldy sound akin to a
crying voice. It’s a sound well suited to the unbridled emotion that can make
sacred steel concerts so thrilling.