As Robbie Robertson hits his late 60s, it is easier now to see his career in stages. The most famous era was his time in The Band. After The Band's breakup in the late 1970s, Robertson immersed himself in the film world often working with his friend, Martin Scorcese. By the late 1980s Robertson released his first of two solo albums which were filled with and influenced sonically by a slew of famous guests. As the 1990s closed, Robertson was exploring his Native American roots on two solo recording projects before going into another long period of silence as a recording artist.
How To Become Clairvoyant marks Robertson's first record in 13 years, a longer gap than the one between The Band's final album and his first solo release. Robertson was in his 50s when his previous solo album was released. Today, he is nearing 70. This critical age difference might be one reason that Clairvoyant emerges as perhaps Robertson's emotionally connecting work since The Band. This album marks the first time where Robertson is fully reflecting on his early life and career that has defined him to the world.
Sometimes an outsider can see things more clearly than those who live within a culture, and Robbie Robertson's evolution as a songwriting voice of the South proved this to be quite true. Although a Canadian of Jewish and Native American descent, Robertson became the songwriting force behind The Band, the legendary (and majority) Canadian ensemble whose musical foundation was built through the teacher/seeker relationship between its Arkansan drummer Levon Helm and Robertson.
At a critical early point in The Band's history, Helm led his bandmates down to his native South so they could finally see first hand the honky tonks, jook joints, and the bluesmen who still played them. No longer was Robertson imagining the South from afar, he was seeing it first hand. That's all it took for his writing muse to inspire some of the greatest songs in perhaps rock's greatest era.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" did what was thought to be impossible at the time. It made southerners, through the song's Confederate protagonist Virgil Kane, sympathetic to hippies and other baby boomers who were inclined to loathe its racial problems and "backward" thinking. As Greil Marcus wrote in his classic Mystery Train:
It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can't get out from under the singer's truth-not the whole truth, simply his truth-and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.
Both Richie Havens and Joan Baez covered the song at the height of the Vietnam era which says everything about its impact to the youth of that era. The Band never stopped being a melding of all southern music from blues to country to New Orleans to Appalachia. The Band's sound remains today as wholly singular. Its spirit has never been duplicated despite an almost infinite number of attempts.
When The Band broke up and Robertson left the rock and roll world for Hollywood, a sad rift developed between Robertson and Helm. This rift only became deeper as Richard Manuel and Rick Danko succumbed to the perils of rock and roll's life on the road. Robertson's songwriting sustained him financially while the rest of The Band still had to sing for their supper. Those long hard years ended the lives of Manuel and Danko much too early. Throat cancer nearly silenced Helm's incredible voice as well.
The distance between Robertson and Helm likely influenced Robertson's past decisions to move away from The Band's music and explore other creative avenues. How To Become Clairvoyant changes that by going back to the beginning and chronicling through song the days before The Band.
The first side of How To Become Clairvoyant could be the demos of a long lost Band album. From the opening "Straight Down The Line" to "This Is Where I Get Off," the album's first five songs chronicle Robertson's earliest times down south, being exposed to this new world, up onto the time Robertson decides to leave it all behind, fearing the dangers of life on the road. In a recent interview, Robertson explained, "Being on the road to me is a young man’s game. When I was young, I loved it.... [I]t was great then, but I don’t relate to that anymore."
For diehard fans of The Band, the first five songs of Clairvoyant make for essential listening. Now that Levon Helm has returned to making records that are worthy of his incredible artistry, Robertson delivering these five songs in a production style that almost makes them sound like bare-boned, yet soulful demos for The Band allows a glorious sense of closure to the Helm/Robertson issues that have sadly taken away from the groundbreaking music that these two legends made together.
The rest of Clairvoyant centers on Robertson's other legacy - his guitar hero status. Robertson was never one for pyrotechnics, but there have been few with his sense of precision, brevity, and soul. Like EF Hutton - when Robbie Robertson's guitar speaks, people listen. His acoustic solo on "Unfaithful Servant" and his electric solo on "King Harvest," the two songs that respectively end The Band's self-titled second album, remain definitive examples of rock and roll guitar playing.
Robertson and The Band changed the course of the music industry leading many to abandon rock's increasingly over the top sensibility for a much needed dose of simplicity. Eric Clapton has always credited The Band's influence in his decision to disband Cream and pursue the song-oriented solo career that has sustained him for decades. Clapton returns the favor here by providing a spark through co-writing and collaboration.
Eric Clapton deserves great credit for his role in this album's creation as Robertson explains:
It started out with Eric Clapton and I just hanging out and kicking around some ideas and telling stories, playing a little bit of guitar and writing a little tune together.... I came back to it by accident a couple years later [and realized], ‘Wow, we dug deeper than what I thought. Some of this sounds like the beginnings of something special.'
From Clapton to Steve Winwood to Tom Morello to Robert Randolph to Jim Keltner, the special guests never overwhelm the album. They properly serve each song.
One can only hope that one day Robertson and Helm will make music together again. Their partnership meant too much to music to allow it to end on a sour note. Robertson has left the door open to Helm in interviews, and How To Become Clairvoyant, taken in kind with Helm's recent work, both serve as a statement that these men still have their creative chops honed.
Their talent and soul still run deep.
- Jim Markel