A swirl of gritty, psychedelic guitars and screaming fans with their hands raised to the heavens isn’t what you typically think of when you hear gospel. But Dallas-bred group the Relatives have no concern about your or anyone else’s preconceived notions of the Lord’s music. They weren’t concerned in the early ’70s either when the band crossbred the funk rhythms of the times with psychedelia and injected a heavy dose of soul –as in the biblical type, into their music.
They played shows around town with some of the most popular gospel groups of the time. The band has shared the stage with the Staple Singers and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, which was akin to Black Sabbath sharing the stage with Simon and Garfunkel. Both are fantastic in their own right, but the Relatives never fit with such ilk and they struggled to find their place.
After a couple of self-released 45s and limited traction outside of North Texas, the group hung up their instruments as the ’80s rolled around. Too far out for parishioners and just maybe too far beyond for the rest of the world at the time.
When Austin-based Heavy Light Records released their complete output as the compilation Don’t Let Me Fall in 2009, the Relatives found their musical flame reignited and reformed the group after some coaxing. “I didn’t want to get back into it because I went through so much of a struggle before as a young musician,” says a gruff-voiced, 75-year-old Relatives founder, Reverend Gean West from his God’s Anointed Church in Dallas. A spell of sold out shows and sweaty festival performances at Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo later, the Relatives converted people that came to see Florence + the Machine or Iggy & the Stooges into bona fide fans.
This is perhaps the most impressive feat of the group; they transcend the sounds of gospel and garner listeners that otherwise wouldn’t find themselves openly endorsing the lord’s music. They cross this threshold by circumventing the standard vanilla themes of gospel. The Relatives croon about topics that touch everyone today, not just the faith seekers. Love and war, the pains of addiction and racial inequality all find their way into the group’s work. “I believe it’s a sound that goes beyond a certain religion,” says the Reverend. “We were aware of this when we came up with this sort of sound. We wanted to be able to reach everybody, not just small group of people.”
First hand experiences reflected upon in group harmonies like the ballad “Speak to Me (What’s Wrong With America?” strike a chord with audiences. “In the sixties, we had done some travelling while all the Freedom Riders and stuff like that was going on. We was looking on and seeing what was happening. What’s wrong with America? Why do things have to be like that with black and white? We didn’t feel that things should be that way because people are people. We should love each other and have a better world.”
Galvanized by their recent success, the Relatives will release their first full length album The Electric Word on February 19th, produced by Jim Eno of Spoon, with backing from former Black Joe Lewis guitarist Zach Ernst on the Yep Roc label. The record finds the group exploring similar territory with Band of Gypsys-inspired jaunts like “Bad Trip” and “Revelations” that feel more like they’re exploring space and time than religion.
You can catch the Relatives at the WFMU benefit alongside Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Dot Wiggins Band and more this Sunday January 13th at the Bell House, and again Monday, January 14th at Joe’s Pub with the Ethiopian jazz group, Debo Band.