For a band capable of stirring up a tempestuous gospel hoe down in concert, Grandfather Child eases into its new album. “Grandfather Child” opens with the slow, slinky and soulful “Can’t Seem to Forget,” whose sound recalls Prince in slow-jam mode more than the steel guitar-led rave-ups that make GFC’s shows a draw. The pace picks up quickly with “... Gonna Have Ourselves a Vision,” which buries the hammer. Paired with “Forget” it creates a broad set of parameters within which the band can comfortably work. The result is an album with familiar embellishments — tips to sacred steel, Southern and Philly soul and Motown, ’60s psychedelia — with a voice of its own.
Grandfather Child makes music meant to be felt, which runs contrary to the oft-chilliness that informs so much independent rock today. “I guess that’s part of the new style of what cool is,” says Lucas Gorham, who sings and plays lap steel. “That feeling of being disengaged. You better not act like you’re having a good time. That’s not what we want to do. We want to make people feel something.”
Gorham’s instrument of choice serves to both accomplish that as well as give the band’s sound a unique bent. He’d previously played guitar with the funky punky band Satin Hooks. He fell under the spell of the film “Sacred Steel,” which documented the decades-old African-American Pentecostal gospel music style.
Gorham’s friend had a National steel guitar. “Basically, I said, ‘Let me have that,’ ” he says. “ ‘Or at least let me borrow it,’ and he said OK. I put a little money into it, and it’s one of the two instruments I’m playing today. I’d been playing guitar like everybody else since I was a teenager, but the steel guitar helped me find a voice for this band.”
Though the sound of the steel is more commonly associated with country music, that wasn’t the sound Gorham wanted. “There’s a punklike energy in the playing in ‘Sacred Steel,’ ” he says. “And I was interested in that. I think it’s more formulaic and scientific than people think. There are certain frequencies that can make music very physical and visceral. When people hear that music live, something actually does happen physiologically to them. As far out as that sounds, that’s my goal. That’s what the gospel guys do. They know the formula, they hit the dynamic and they work a crowd.”
Gorham initially hatched the group as a three-piece, but by the time the band played an energetic 2009 set opening for Roky Erickson it was a four-piece with Geoffrey Muller on guitar, Ryan Chavez on drums and Robert Ellis playing bass. (Lately, Ellis has been too busy with his own recording/touring duties to stay in the fold.) The sound at that time seemed to draw heavily from sacred steel as well as the rawer side of Mississippi hill country blues.
In the three years since, Grandfather Child has further expanded what it can sound like. “Grandfather Child” is proof of that, while also suggesting future expansion. A few of the songs are lifted with a small string section, which is applied for texture rather than bombast. And there are also old-school constructs, like call-and-response vocals. Gorham has been obsessed with the various vocal approaches of Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama. “I love those formulas where there are several singers backing up a lead guy,” he says. “They do this vamp, repetitive thing while one guy wails and screams his (expletive) off.
“And it’s important to do things like that without those hints of irony that people put into them. These songs are pretty sincere. It’s not a joke to us. At the same time, we hope to add a little humor to it.”
That delicate balance shows some influence by Daniel Johnston, the Waller resident and cult singer-songwriter who tends to write with transparent earnestness threaded with some humor. “I like that idea of writing in that out-in-the-open way,” Gorham says. “Where everything is very exposed.”
Another musician who comes to mind in listening to Grandfather Child is Bobby Womack, whose genre-blurring hot period in the ’60s and ’70s was built on a soulful foundation. But Womack’s vision and voice were inclusive. He drew on his youth singing gospel but was also quite attuned to the mainstream pop music of his day.
Gorham calls Womack “one of my biggest influences and one of my favorite singers.” He laughs. “He’s certainly one of the people I try to rip off vocally. There’s all this information — sometimes it’s all the words, sometimes it’s the sounds — but he makes it all sound so soulful at the same time. That’s what I hope we’re able to do.”
With the Suffers and Marmalakes
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Fitzgerald’s, 2706 White Oak
Tickets: $10; 713-862-3838 or www.fitzlivemusic.com