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Robbie Robertson

For many the most recognisable figure with country-folk legends, The BAND, Canadian singer-songwriter ROBBIE ROBERTSON (born Jaime Robert Klegerman, July 5, 1943 in Toronto, Ontario; his father Jewish, his mother Mohawk Indian) has showed his versatility throughout his long and chequered career. It had kick-started way back in 1958, when the young guitarist (and BAND alumni Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel) had accompanied rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins on tour; and later on record.
The BAND, of course, were one of America’s most revered roots rock groups, Robbie an integral part from the get-go on self-penned songs such as `The Weight’, `To Kingdom Come’, `Chest Fever’ and `Caledonia Mission’, all giants from their masterful 1968 beginnings, `Music From The Big Pink’. It was a sad Thanksgiving Day in 1976 that produced one of the best film rockumentaries in `The Last Waltz’, their triple-LP soundtrack swansong featuring of course their contemporary cohort and master of anti-war songs, DYLAN.
ROBERTSON diversified into acting and production; the latter skills overseeing NEIL DIAMOND’s `Beautiful Noise’ album in 1976. While most of The BAND’s members would remain pretty much out of the limelight for much of the ensuing decade, principal songwriter ROBBIE ROBERTSON went on to develop his relationship with Martin Scorsese, becoming the director’s right hand composer for a series of early 80s classics. While no soundtrack was released at the time from grainy boxing epic, Raging Bull (1980), Robbie’s sterling work on sideshow drama, CARNY (1980) {*4}, delivered his inaugural movie entry.
As well as acting in the film, ROBERTSON – in collaboration with Hollywood composer Alex North – scored the soundtrack, a combination of conventional orchestral atmospherics and more rock-centric, New Orleans-influenced instrumentals such as the down and dirty `Garden Of Earthly Delights’. Despite the scoring credits, the man only actually performed on three tracks, including the latter, plus a smoking, organ-heavy cover of FATS DOMINO’s `The Fat Man’, the only vocal track on the album and only one of a handful of solo vocals he’d recorded in his entire career up to that point.
Searing media satire, The King Of Comedy (1983), were testament to a talent undimmed by the trials of rock stardom. He also scored Scorsese’s “Hustler” follow-up The Color Of Money (1986), complementing contributions from old pals like CLAPTON, whom he’d work with later in his career.
Passing up the opportunity to become part of a re-formed BAND in the mid-80s, ROBERTSON instead concentrated on developing a belated solo career. Co-produced by mood master, DANIEL LANOIS and boasting the likes of U2, PETER GABRIEL, NEIL YOUNG and even the Gil Evans horn formation, the eponymous ROBBIE ROBERTSON (1987) {*7} album steered clear of the rich roots-rock of The BAND, opting instead for a highly original blend of atmospheric sophistication best sampled on the sultry `Somewhere Down The Crazy River’. The latter track was an unexpected UK Top 20 hit, while the album itself sold respectably, cracking the lower regions of the British Top 50 and the American Top 40.
Hardly the most prolific of artists, it would be another four years before the release of a follow-up, STORYVILLE (1991) {*6}. This time around mining the rich seam of New Orleans music in tandem with assorted METERS and NEVILLE BROTHERS, he moved seamlessly through a variety of Crescent City styles incorporating blues, gospel and R&B via his trademark half-spoken vocal style. Despite widespread critical acclaim and a Top 30 UK chart position, the Stephen Hague/Gary Gersh-produced record failed to launch ROBERTSON into the major league of adult rock; `Go Back To Your Woods’ was co-scribed with BRUCE HORNSBY.
Moving back into celluloid, the singer hooked up with The Red Road Ensemble for the soundtrack to US TV documentary, music for THE NATIVE AMERICANS (1994) {*5}. As a polished, muso variation on the kind of ENIGMA/DEEP FOREST-esque world fusion that was everywhere in the early to mid-90s, Robbie’s soundtrack inevitably sounds more dated than some of his other solo works, but it can at least claim the legitimacy of input from fellow contemporary Native American/Native American-descended artists, people like Pura Fe (blues-singing descendent of the Tascarora tribe and founder of native a cappella group Ulali, also featured here), Douglas Spotted Eagle and the more instantly recognisable RITA COOLIDGE. ROBERTSON’s deep-set strata of quasi-ambient programming, percussion and ethnic voicing are very “Real World”-ly – the album’s actually released on Capitol Records but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the familiar spectrum logo of PETER GABRIEL’s world music bastion – yet at the same time strangely passionless, as if the earnestness of intention has suffocated the end result. Much of the history here is pretty tragic but too often the poignancy of the Native American story doesn’t really have room to breathe amid the overly sophisticated, overly studio-assisted music and lyrics which often border on the trite. Prominent bass and a smoke-signal keyboard melody lend the likes of `Ghost Dance’ and `The Vanishing Breed’ a certain grace but the soundtrack only really communicates the latent power of its subject on closer, `Twisted Hair’, where ROBERTSON pares the arrangements down to just a Lakota opera singer (Bonnie Jo Hunt), his own wonderfully gruff voice and an unlikely spectral chorus of sampled crickets. A missed opportunity; another film score saw him contribute greatly to Barry Levinson’s showbiz satire, JIMMY HOLLYWOOD (1994) {*5}and plus Oliver Stone’s American Football drama, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (2000) {*4} – “Volume II” only.
American Indians also informed much of the lyrical subject matter on 1998’s CONTACT FROM THE UNDERWORLD OF REDBOY {*5} wherein ROBERTSON – with the help of Scots DJ/producer HOWIE B – experimented more openly than ever before with electronic soundscapes; check out their collaborative UK minor hit, `Take Your Partner By The Hand’.
Post-millennium, Robbie wound down his solo career big style, limiting guest appearances to a minimum; these included performing his `Stomp Dance (Unity)’ (from his previous effort) at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics and at CLAPTON’s Crossroads Guitar Fest (July 28, 2007) at Bridgeview Illinois; soundtrack work (from Gangs Of New York to Shutter Island) was of musical supervision only.
Then, out of the blue, featuring a raft of backers including ERIC CLAPTON, STEVE WINWOOD, TRENT REZNOR, TOM MORELLO, Robert Randolph and Angela McCluskey, his long-awaited fifth set HOW TO BECOME CLAIRVOYANT (2011) {*6} was delivered. Anticipation and musical reputation still intact after a long 13 years in the showbiz wilderness, the record climbed into the Top 20 (UK Top 60). Once again performing alongside the “god”-like genius of E.C. (on `Fear Of Falling’) – the man also wrote `Madame X’ for the project – the husky giant revealed his class by way of `He Don’t Live Here No More’, `This Is Where I Get Off’ and the title track.
Several years on and in part inspired by his efforts on Scorsese’s “The Irishman” crime movie (starring usual suspects De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel and Cannavale), ROBERTSON’s canny comeback SINEMATIC (2019) {*7} opened with the classy `I Heard You Paint Houses’ (a duet with VAN MORRISON); the title of the affiliated tie-in book by Charles Brandt. Of course Robbie was no stranger to the odd soundtrack as previously referenced, however here the cool singer – in both half-sung/half-spoken precision – confusingly dispensed with the OST rulebook. Track 2, `Once Were Brothers’, was relatively uplifting and poignant, whereas the money-shot would filter through in the shimmering `Hardwired’; something akin to COODER or the recently-parted DR. JOHN. The latter track was one of a handful scribed with HOWIE B (`The Shadow’ another gem), whereupon Laura Satterfield helped out on the breathy `Walk In Beauty Way’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Sep2019

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