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The Half-Breed Rides Again

Robbie Robertson returns -- at last -- with a new record

by Jay Cocks

From Time Magazine, November 30, 1987.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Is there a fatted calf handy? Robbie Robertson is back where he belongs, making records and writing songs, spinning out small chapters of fresh-minted American mythology, lyric and funny, funky and mysterious. He was ringleader of the Band, a seminal group that played like road warriors and sang songs that seemed to come from some new national folklore, timeless music conjuring a time that never was. He has been away eleven years now, ever since he organized rock's greatest farewell concert, 1976's The Last Waltz, during which he and the Band brought together "different spokes in the wheel of our music" -- Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters -- and saw themselves off into the history books in princely fashion.

After that, Robertson kicked back, took it easy in Malibu. While spending time with his wife of 19 years, Dominique, and their three children ("Being home freshened up the atmosphere considerably"), he continued a collaboration with Director Martin Scorsese begun on The Last Waltz concert film. He worked on music for Raging Bull, The Color of Money and The King of Comedy, for which he wrote his first song in five years. Called "Between Trains," it was a spooky, heart-torn memorial for a Viet Nam vet, a friend who died too soon, and it was also a reminder of how badly Robertson was missed. No one else wrote songs like that.

Until now. At the age of 44, Robertson has shaken the dust off and made his first solo album. Two Band colleagues show up on two cuts for the sake of old times. There are also hefty contributions from U2, Peter Gabriel and the BoDeans, and stylistic echoes as diverse as Tom Waits and David Byrne. But Robbie Robertson is unmistakably his work. He says it best himself on the last cut, Testimony: "Bear witness, I'm wailing like the wind/ Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again." So step right up and welcome him home.

Until 1985, Robertson, "blessed with the opportunity to shut up when I have nothing to say," was . . . well, counting his blessings. "I wanted to feel like I couldn't wait to make music, rather than regarding it as a chore," he says. "I knew that if I spoke with all my heart, it would be better for everyone." The writing started tentatively at first ("It was like getting used to the water again"), but, after a time, sounds he heard and stories he suddenly had to tell "came into the open. It was a good feeling. Then I was gone. I got to the studio before 8 in the morning, and I couldn't wait to get my mitts into it."

The songwriting took less than a year. There are nine new tunes on this album and enough material left over to give Robertson a strong head start on the next one. The recording took another full year. Together with Producer ; Daniel Lanois, who worked with U2 on The Joshua Tree, Robertson came up with a silky, soaring sound that is ethereal and sporting at the same time, just what you might hear from a roadhouse located down an off ramp just south of the pearly gates.

He is not working the Band vein here, but he is still writing in the American grain. Born in Canada to a Mohawk mother and a Jewish father, Robertson talks about American mythology, about leaving home in Ronnie Hawkins' barbed-wire rock band and touring rural America, about going "down South, where the music and folklore had enormous impact on me." All those great early Band songs (The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Shape I'm In, Up on Cripple Creek) were Robertson's way of measuring and transmuting all that experience. The material on this record just deepens his traditional alchemy. "That's what I feel I do," he reflects. "I write American mythology. I'm the storyteller of the shadowland."

The new songs, many of them rooted in American Indian spirituality, have stronger stylistic affinities with later, longer and more ambitious compositions like The River Hymn and It Makes No Difference, when Robertson was testing the Band's limits as well as his own. The new record's Broken Arrow, one of the best things he has ever written, brings together a delicate love song ("Do you feel what I feel/ Can we make that so it's part of the deal") with a gentle meditation on Indian pride and mystic communion, all united with a simple refrain: "Who else is gonna bring you/ A broken arrow/ Who else is gonna bring you/ A bottle of rain/ There he goes, moving across the water/ There he goes, turning my whole world around."

Robertson has returned at a time when, as he says, "there's a feeling of a little more substance in the air." The two U2 collaborations on the record (Testimony and the reactor-hot Sweet Fire of Love) were launched on little more than a wing, a prayer, a guitar riff, a tom-tom beat and a horn chart written by Gil Evans (Miles Davis' collaborator on Sketches of Spain). It is not only talent that makes these songs work, it's a finding of common ground between Robertson and the Dublin boys so sudden and intense that the discovery ignites the songs. U2 squires him into 1987; he gives them heft, antecedents and even a little history lesson.

Robertson, who got movie star-style notices for his onscreen presence in The Last Waltz, right now is shining on videos. MTV showcased two separate videos with an interrelated story line, as well as a 30-minute documentary calculated to let a couple of generations catch up on what they missed the first time around. Does the man who made this splendid new record, the man who wrote The Weight and Daniel and the Sacred Harp and set his fingers around some of rock's best guitar, really need an introduction? Business realities suggest that he might, but, in truth, even if you had never met him or heard him before, you would know Robbie Robertson in an instant. Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain?

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