Soundbites: Story time with Robbie Robertson


Its easy to imagine Robbie Robertson, the eloquent songwriter and breakthrough guitarist from The Band, performing songs from his new album surrounded by fully grown fans sitting Indian-style, listening intently like kids at story time.

Now Andy Warhols in the hotel lobby / Hes waiting for the late-night muse / But she wont be back before morning / Shes gone downtown to hear some blues, Robertson aches on the nostalgic When the Night Was Young.

His first solo album since the 90s, Robertsons How to Become Clairvoyant is a take-it-easy paced collection of narratives, recollections and sometimes confessions harkening back to The Bands glory days. Its a soulful, hazy record spiced with big names like Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph and Steve Winwood. He even employs whippersnappers Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) for help.

The lineup fits a guy who threw his band a going away party stuffed with rock-all-stars in The Last Waltz show 35 years ago.

Heavy on bluesy grooves throughout, this fifth solo album from the Canadian icon offers slightly more lyrically than it does musically, but how many times can a legend reinvent himself? Fear of Falling is hokey perhaps a byproduct of Claptons influence but its also hard to hate on the classic Clapton template of funky guitar fills and a chorus that takes three measures to say one word.

Axman is must-hear track. An ode to the guitarist, Morello adds piquancy to Robertsons standard sound with heavy, electric nuance but only when Robertson tells him. When he sings the word wail, Morellos guitar wails. When Robertson sings the words crazy sound, Morellos fingers amble a crazy solo. And so on. The way this track was done should be the standard for songs bridging the generations of old and new rock.

The most rewarding part of Clairvoyant is its window into Robertsons mind and memory. Hes seen a lot, and listeners get to hear it. 

On This Is Where I Get Off its easy to imagine Robertson crooning in a confession booth when he sings scruffily and sadly, Walking out on the boys / was never the plan / We just drifted off course / couldnt strike up the band. Its a sort of declaration of guilt about The Bands demise in 1976. In what may be a bit of news, he seems to admit abandoning his band mates in this misty, slow-going song with snaking, arguing guitars wielded by Robertson and Clapton.

Its a good thing Robertson isnt truly clairvoyant. If he was, he wouldnt have made the mistakes necessary for such an honest album.