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  • Writer's pictureBlair Morgan

Testimony - Robbie Robertson RIP

In the same week that the designer responsible for the iconic Sex Pistols imagery (Jamie Reid) passed away, news broke that Band songwriter guitarist/producer Robbie Robertson had also died aged 80 after a long bout with cancer. It is an odd symmetry but the Band's seminal 1976 Last Waltz extravaganza was filmed in the Winterland Ballroom , San Francisco the same venue that would host the Sex Pistols barely 14 months later.

The Band’s final show was really an end of an era the punk explosion was about to happen and gave way to New Wave and then genres such as New Country and ultimately, Americana were born, both of which could be argued the Band started with Bob Dylan anyway .So a full stop was drawn under the Band with the release of the Last Waltz film in 1978.

Watching the Last Waltz for the first time in the 80's the Band seemed archaic with long hair, beards, flares however you could see and hear they played really well but Martin Scorsese's camera invariably had Robertson in its sights. He was the musical director ,songwriter, producer guitar hero and main spokesman of the band (all of which created ructions later).

What he wasn’t was a vocalist and there are stories that his enthusiastic BV's seen during the Last Waltz were via a mic not plugged in (he certainly seems a long way away from it most of the time). The Band had three of the greatest white singers of the rock era, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel , not sure if Garth Hudson ever sang, but if he did it's possible Robertson could have been ranked fifth which is all the more astonishing for what the Band did with Robertson’s material melodically. Lyrically Robertson (a Canadian as most of the Band were) had vivid imagery evoking an America that could at once been anchored as far back as the Civil War yet retained universal themes that were also timeless. There is no doubt that he would have learned his song writing chops in close proximity to Bob Dylan yet you also have a sense that (for example) Bruce Springsteen was equally influenced by Robertson with his economy of detail and penchant for "story" songs (take a chunk of The River and all of Nebraska for example).

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead I just need some place where I can lay my head "Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?" He just grinned and shook my hand, "no" was all he said

(The Weight )

Fast forward a couple of generations and Robertson decides the time is right to record and release under his own name in 1987. His former colleagues had already done this earlier in the decade as a reboot of The Band but Robbie was having none of that , seemingly content to keep hanging out with Scorcese in film land and not wanting to return to the Band style of music . He obviously had designs of being "hip" to a new generation hence Peter Gabriel (then an enormous star on the back of the likes Sledgehammer) and producer Daniel Lanois were brought in to assist.

Despite him being away for well over a decade , the anticipation for a solo Robbie Robertson album was huge. Could he sing? Well yes and no , Robertson always came across as very astute, so he didn't try to emulate Helm, Danko, or Manuel instead adopting a faux Tom Waits spoken word/ occasional falsetto styling and (smart move this) getting the likes of the great (and very current) Bo Deans to help out where required on backing vocals. Listening to it today the input of the Bo Deans on "Show Down at Big Sky" and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" is huge. As for the "Peter Gabriel" tracks "Fallen Angel" and "Broken Arrow" they sound now like a bridge between Gabriel’s So and his next release Us , all with Daniel Lanois continuing in the producer chair for both. However lyrically no one else could come up with lines like these:

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow

Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain

There he goes moving across the water

There he goes turning my whole world around

(Broken Arrow)

Take a picture of this

The fields are empty, abandoned '59 Chevy

Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John

Yeah, that's when time stood still

You know, I think I'm gonna go down to Madam X

And let her read my mind

She said, "That voodoo stuff don't do nothing for me

(Somewhere Down the Crazy River)

Again Robertson seems to be evoking an America of generations ago but you are never sure and as always he keeps it universal leaving it up to your imagination.

As it stands the debut album is dated, disparate and ultimately weak ("Hells Half Acre" and "American Roulette "are toss off guitar riffs while "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight" has Robertson appearing to imitate Springsteen imitating Robertson) Just about the pits is the U2 collaboration , "Sweet Fire of Love" featuring an Edge "oil tanker guitar" riff and a "look at me" over the top Bono vocal while Testimony although with a great horn line and guitar riff has Bono again shouting us all into submission.

Storyville (1991)

Better things were to appear with each succeeding solo release , Storyville, took a New Orleans theme with great arrangements (horns by great arranger Wardell Quezergue). Yet Robertson still looked to be content to lean on having current artists (The Blue Nile, David & David , Bruce Hornsby (!) and the Neville Brothers) and staying hip with producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys) .

In those proud shoes coming on up the alley

In those proud shoes walks all over the sky

Then he tipped his hat just like Don Quixote

And said don't let the rapture pass you by

Heard a bugle blowing in the misty morning

What a haunting sound over Times Square

Heard of the ghost of 52nd Street

Looked out the door but no one was there

(Soapbox Preacher)

Music from the Native Americans (1994)

Much better was Music from the Native Americans, here Robertson looks to his Apache roots (hinted at in the videos and some of the lyrical imagery from the solo debut) and crafts soundscapes with other vocalists and collaborators. You have the sense Robertson is in his happy place here , the comfort of the producer role and film project tied in altogether. This was likely the peak of solo Robertson from a popularity point of view which is a shame as the next album tied everything together .

Yes a pretentious title but here Robertson expertly fused his Native American roots with techno beats and shards of his biting guitar (around this time a doco was made of the Band’s first couple of albums as part of the BBC Classic Albums series. Producer Don Was describes Robbie as a “freak of a guitarist”). The album is his Graceland Native American style , world music at a time when that was starting to appear more and more but with an ultra-modern production by Marius de Vries (Bjork, Massive Attack) to boot . The album is coherent aided by a core team of musicians including de Vries and Robertson defaults to his spoken word vocals ala “Crazy River” to great effect. The plight of Leonard Peltier in “Sacrifice” (locked away under dubious circumstances on two consecutive life sentences ) echoed Dylan’s Hurricane. While on "Stomp Dance" he lays it out emphatically, no doubt where he stands:

Beating hearts, beating hearts

Come as one, come as one

This is Indian country

This is Indian country

Together we dance

All the first nations

There's no chance

We ever gonna give up, no

(Stomp Dane (Unity)

Redboy still sounds exciting and inventive today, this is not Band music or Americana in the slightest.

From here Robertson released a grand total of two solo albums over the last quarter century. He remained in film land with Scorsese but he could be excused from moving on from recording albums at this pace and thinking , not unreasonably that he had done what he wanted to do.


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