The legendary guitarist opens up about the Band, collaborating with Eric Clapton, and his collection of vintage Martins.
On November 25, 1976, one of the most remarkable concerts in rock history took place at Winterland in San Francisco, California. "The Last Waltz" included performances by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Hric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Dr. John, and others, Attendees were treated to a catered Thanksgiving dinner. And even more notably, the unprecedented event, filmed foi posterity by director Martin Scorsese, had been planned and promoted as the formal swan song for one of the, most respected groups of the era - the Band.
Robbie Robertson, Levon Helrn, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson recorded one mofe studio album together, 1977s Islands. Over the subsequent three and a half decades, Robertspn, who had been the Band's lead guitarist and primary songwrrter - and who instigated the dissolution-has been more active as a film music composer, consultant, and supervisor (see "Go to the Movies," page 44) than as a recording artist in his own right.
Treasured as a songwriÎer ("The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Shape f'm in") and revered as a guitarist for his uniquely terse, expressionisric style (Bob Dylan famously called him a "mathematical guitar genius"), the Toronto-born Rpbertson had showcased those talents on only four solo albums ¿before this year: Robbie Robertxon (1987), StoryviUe. (1901), Music for the Native Americans (1994), and Contact from the Underwold of Redboyl (1998). The 2011 release of How to Become Clairvoyant came therefore as something of a surprise.
Even more startling for longtime Robertson watchers is the way the 68-year-old pioneer of Americana addresses his personal musical history in his new songs. He had previously reflected on his family and cultural roots - he was born Jaime Robbie Robertson, July 5, 1943, the son of a Jewish father and Mohawk mother who was raised on the Six Nations Reserva ti on- in such- songs as "Acadian Drifttoood" and "Rags arid Bones" on the Band's Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975). But on How to Become Clairvoyant's "When the Night Was Young" (with its card sharps and tent-show evangelists on Highway 61, and mentions of Luke the Drifter and Andy Warhol) and "This Is Where I Get Off' (about his decision to leave the Band), he makes poetic reference to the seminal 16 years of his early career. "Straight Down the Une' does it, too," he said in a telephone interview from Village Studios in Los Angeles, California. "All of these things are reflections from back then. None of these are about what happened just yesterday."
"Back then" in this case includes the periods when Robertson, Helm, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson toured with Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks (1961-64); backed Bob Dylan on his first US "electric" tour (1965-66); holed up with Dylan in the house called Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, and recorded what became The Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967 but released in 1975); signed to Capitol Records as the Band, after first calling themselves the Crackers (1967); performed at the Woodstock Festival (1969); played in front of 650,000 people at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in upstate New York (1973); toured with Dylan again (1974); and went into the studio for the last time as the Band (1977).
How to Become Clairvoyant is also the most guitar-centric album hi Robertson's solo catalog, and not just because it name-checks "Duane," "Stevie Ray," "Jimi James," "Link Wray," "Django," "Elmore James," and others in "Axman." Begun as a collaboration with Eric Clapton, who plays on seven of the 12 tracks, the recording includes significant contributions by pedal steel star Robert Randolph and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello (plus a rhythm section of Steve Winwood and Marius de Vries on keyboards, Pino Palladino on …