Sharps and Flats: Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson, "Contact from the Underworld of Redboy", from Capitol Records.

By John Milward

Published March 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Robbie Robertson is the Canadian son of a mother of Mohawk descent. As a child of the Toronto suburbs, he tuned into all sorts of American music during summertime visits to the reservation where his mother grew up. He became famous as the guitar player and principal songwriter of the Band, whose first two records ("Music From Big Pink" and "The Band") essentially defined a roots-rock fusion that's now called Americana. Twenty-two years after taking a last bow with the Band at a farewell concert dubbed "The Last Waltz," the man who wrote "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is tuning into his Native American roots on his fourth solo album, "Contact From the Underworld of Redboy."

Robertson's ethnic move is grounded in more emotional reality than Paul Simon getting in touch with his nonexistent Latin side on "Songs from 'The Capeman,'" but both men are pop culture sophisticates, and neither fits the typical profile of a roots boy. Indeed, the most significant artistic influence in Robertson's post-Band career is not even a musician, but Martin Scorsese, who directed "The Last Waltz," and for whom the guitarist has written film scores and produced compilation soundtracks. It's no accident, then, that Robertson comes across as the director of his album, collaborating with hit-savvy producers like Howie B. and Marius de Vries to cast throat singers, peyote healers, an imprisoned activist, computer programmers and Robertson's own lead guitar in an ornate soundscape that evokes a John Ford movie without the cowboys.

Robertson took a much more literal approach to this musical territory on the soundtrack to a 1994 miniseries, "The Native Americans." On "Redboy," he's cranked up the volume and found a giddy logic in, for example, placing a haunting female vocalist from a 1942 Library of Congress recording within a computerized atmosphere spiked by a wah-wah guitar. While this mixmaster strategy creates an album that's a seamless whole, the music only really commands attention on uptempo tunes like "Rattlebone" and "Stromp Dance (Unity)," where Robertson's guitar burns atop thick beds of chants and rhythms. At slower tempos, the music is more earnest than exciting.

Robertson's never been much of a singer, and in his solo work, he tends to eschew vocal melodies for noir-ish narrations delivered atop instrumental tracks. "Here's where we go off the map," he intones on "Rattlebone," "out past the power lines. Up that little side road without a sign, hidden from the main street, the keepers of the ancient future, the keepers of the drum. They don't preserve it; they live it." Not bad for hard-boiled prose, but when it comes to songwriting, words without a melody never play as well the second time as the first. In the Band, Robertson's songs were interpreted by three fine singers: Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. But as a solo artist, Robertson has let the limitations of his voice unduly constrict the range of his songwriting. Tom Waits, for one, proves that this is not necessary.

"Contact From the Underworld of Redboy" is one of those albums that will garner rave reviews from critics who will forget about it long before they compose their year-end Top 10 lists. It's also the kind of album that would never have ended up on a major label were it not produced by an artist with friends and fans in high places. Unfortunately, despite the evocative strength of its production, "Redboy" has precious little to do with the kind of songcraft that got Robbie Robertson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

John Milward

John Milward is a New York freelance writer.

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