Robbie Robertson Returns
Review : How to Become Clairvoyant
by Peter Stone Brown
When Robbie Robertson finally returned to recording more than a decade after the original lineup of The Band played their last show, it was obvious he had moved on in terms of sound. Co-producing with Daniel Lanois, the album was awash in ambiance complete with what a musician friend of mine liked to call Peter Gabriel drums. To be fair, it’s natural for any musician to grow, change and progress, and The Band were not strangers to ambience on their recordings, usually provided by Garth Hudson’s majestic keyboards and his pioneering use of synthesizer. Beneath the production, it was clear Robertson’s songwriting talents had not left him. It also made clear why Robertson had left most of the singing in The Band to Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Robertson’s smoky voice simply was not as powerful.
When The Band’s debut, Music From Big Pink, was released in 1968, it was such an incredible amalgam of all the music styles that formulated rock ’n’ roll, and played with such skill, soul and conviction, it turned the rock music world on its head. Eric Clapton wondered what he was doing with Cream, The Beatles and the Stones abandoned their psychedelic experiments, and several bands started gravitating towards country or at least a more roots-based sound.
The songwriting was also on as astoundingly high level, considering there were only seven originals, not counting the two collaborations with Bob Dylan. Richard Manuel was the more personal and poetic, while Robertson was the story teller. Their second album, The Band, clarified this, though Manuel’s songs were now collaborations with Robertson, and it also clarified a vision of both a mythical and historical America parlayed against the turbulence of the American landscape at the time. This led Rolling Stone magazine to proclaim a few months later in their then-humorous achievement awards that “The Band was the only group who could have warmed up the crowd for Abraham Lincoln.”
Robertson maintained this vision somewhat for the group’s third album, but by their fourth, Cahoots, it was obvious he was struggling to come up with material, and by this time Manuel had stopped writing entirely. Hitting a creative block, The Band returned to their bar band roots, and released an album of old rock ’n’ roll and R&B covers. It would be two years before they released a new album of original material, one that found several old themes revisited with a new updated more synthesized sound. The album also found Robertson for the first time writing a song apparently based on personal experience, a love song destined to become a classic, “It Makes No Difference.”
Onstage, the cracks were starting to show at their concerts, despite the huge ’74 tour, marking Bob Dylan’s return to the concert stage, which found them briefly revitalized. The Band were one of the tightest groups playing, and could bring the sound they achieved in the studio onstage. Their initial concerts were adventurous. They traded instruments, pulled out songs not on record and made those in attendance want more. As time went on that rarely happened and they settled into a routine. By the mid-’70s, it was clear Richard Manuel was having a hard time performing. His voice would blow out after a couple of songs, and the others were covering for him. When The Band announced in the fall of 1976, that they were ending live performances and would be only recording (which never happened), it was sad, but wasn’t that big a surprise to anyone who had seen them from the beginning. So they had a big final concert, filmed it and it became one of the best music movies ever made. What the film doesn’t make clear in the way the performers are introduced is that all the musicians at the concert had worked with members of The Band at one time or another, usually in the recording studio and sometimes onstage. It’s the one thing about The Last Waltz I never understood. I always felt it would have been just as impressive if not amazing to simply say, and then we worked with Van Morrison or Neil Young or Dr. John, or Muddy Waters.
One of the people they worked with who for some unfathomable reason not at The Last Waltz was the blues singer, John Hammond Jr. It was on an album of his recorded in 1964, but released in the spring of 1965 that I first encountered (as they were listed in the credits) Jaime Robbie R, Mark Levon Helm, and Eric Hudson. Also on that album were Mike Bloomfield playing piano (which says something right there about Robertson’s guitar playing) and harp player Charlie Musselwhite. The album was released before the British Blues invasion, before the Chicago Blues revival, and it led me to Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush and all the Chicago blues greats. Robertson’s guitar work is loud, explosive and funky. Unlike Bloomfield, Clapton and the other guitarist to come, he didn’t play fast extended runs, but short bursts of pure power. When I saw Robertson and Helm back up Bob Dylan a few months later, at his first concert with a band in New York City at Forest Hills stadium in Queens, a concert that was every bit as controversial as the more heralded Newport Folk Festival appearance a month before, and then saw him about six weeks later with the full band then known as Levon and the Hawks, I thought, oh the guys from the Hammond album. And on that album, you can hear the predecessor the sound they had backing Dylan in the fall of 1965 and through the spring of ’66, and it made perfect sense because a large percentage of Dylan’s rock ’n’ roll is structurally based on the blues.
And so after 20 years (not counting the two albums dealing with his Native American heritage), Robbie Robert is back with a new album that falls somewhere in the realm of rock and roll, How To Become Clairvoyant. It is both his most personal album writing-wise and also a guitar album, with Eric Clapton his primary coconspirator. On a few songs he addresses the dissolution of The Band.
Robertson is the consummate pro in everything he does and a perfectionist. He may be a bit too much of a perfectionist, because there’s a distance in both the writing and the playing. Early on Robertson showed he had mastered several aspects of songwriting, one of the key ones being timelessness, and some of the others being a good riff to base a song around a memorable chorus. Clairvoyant has all these aspects in abundance. The Curtis Mayfield inspired lick that opens “When The Night Was Young” is gorgeous. Robertson uses his smoky half talking, half singing voice appropriately at all times. But there’s something missing, an urgency, that strike to the gut.
The first five songs of the album are indeed impressive, and they have a way of replaying in your mind after you’ve stopped listening. “He Don’t Live Here No More” is quite a powerful rocker, but it’s so couched in smooth production, it doesn’t hit you with the power it deserves. And there’s definite hot guitar interplay between Robertson and Clapton and elsewhere on the album between Robertson and Robert Randolph, but it takes a few listens before you realize it.
Things take a turn for the mundane on “Fear of Falling,” partly because Clapton sings the first verse, which is weirdly disconcerting. They get slightly better on “She’s Not Mine,” and then there’s a brief interlude for a nice instrumental, “Madame X” that reminds me of Mark Knopfler soundtracks (which I happen to like).
The true killer song, is “This Is Where I Get Off,” about the breakup of The Band. The soaring guitars echo the sorrow in the lyrics and the song builds like no other on the record in terms of impact. After a great guitar duet with Clapton that shows what both are truly capable of, when Robertson comes back to see the last chorus, it’s with such urgency, power and feeling, that you end up wishing the other songs had that same depth of emotion.
Ultimately, it comes down to the simple fact that The Band is a tough act to follow because they were a real band in every since of the word, where every member contributed something important to the whole. Take away one piece and it all falls apart. When The Band reformed, they couldn’t really do what they did before, and at times it seemed as if they were covering themselves. I came away from the shows of the reformed Band feeling it was nice to see them. With the original group, I was awestruck for weeks afterwards. And near the end, when it was obvious they hadn’t rehearsed, and they were blowing intros to songs they’d played probably hundreds of times, I stopped seeing them because I didn’t want it to cloud the great memories. As it turned out, they never came back anyway.
It’s probably not fair, but there are times on How To Become Clairvoyant as there were on Robertson’s second album Storyville where you can almost hear what The Band would have done with these songs.
At the same time, every time I listen to this album, I hear something I didn’t notice before. Recently, to promote this album, Robertson’s made a few TV appearances with a young LA band named Dawes who proved quite capable of backing him. Perhaps Robertson, who has expressed no desire to tour, needs to get out of the studio to really make these songs come alive.