Friday, March 4, 2016

Robbie Robertson 1: Robbie Robertson

For the first few years after he left The Band and seeing himself on the big screen, Robbie Robertson plunged whole-heartedly into the world of cinema. While he failed to become a matinee idol, his friendship with Martin Scorsese meant he was tapped to organize the music for films like Raging Bull, The Color Of Money and King Of Comedy, featuring Van Morrison’s excellent delivery of “Wonderful Remark”. His former Band-mates, save Levon, often helped with these recordings, so hearing Rick and Richard’s voices plus Garth’s keyboards made them special. (“The Best Of Everything”, from Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, was another notable production in this period.)
Robbie wouldn’t have been any band’s choice for a lead vocalist, so the idea of a solo album on which he sang all the songs raised eyebrows everywhere. But in a masterstroke of timing, he hooked up with Daniel Lanois, and his eponymous solo debut arrived in the wake of the multiplatinum success of Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree. Robbie Robertson also tapped most of the musicians—and the two singers—involved with both albums, making the listening experience familiar.
“Fallen Angel” burbles up slowly, a lovely tribute to he recently departed Richard Manuel. Peter Gabriel sings the harmony parts on the chorus that Richard himself might have sung had he lived to do so. The first single was “Showdown At Big Sky”, with all-star contributions only on the level of the BoDeans, but enough of an apocalyptic echo of “Red Rain” to sound great on the radio. “Broken Arrow” could’ve been another Richard song, and would soon be covered by Rod Stewart. But a lot of kids likely bought the album on the basis of “Sweet Fire Of Love”, wherein Robbie trades vocal lines with Bono over a U2 backing.
One track that wore out its novelty pretty quickly was “American Roulette”, which references the demises of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with clumsy metaphors and references. “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is also an acquired taste, with its overly dramatic narration, counterpoints from Sammy BoDean, and a video in which Robbie got to paw Maria McKee. “Hell’s Half Acre” is lyrically slight but a good rocker, while the noir-storytelling “Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight” is redeemed by Rick Danko. And U2 returns to help him bang out “Testimony” with a Gil Evans horn section for a rousing conclusion.
As we’ve seen and heard too many times, an all-star cast doesn’t always guarantee quality, but somehow Robbie’s ragged voice matched the lyrics he certainly wrote himself without dispute, and the swampy production on Robbie Robertson still sounds fitting all this time later. Back then, it seemed like quite a comeback. (A later repackage added two tracks—his own remake of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” for the Scrooged soundtrack and an overly gospel remix of “Testimony”.)

Robbie Robertson Robbie Robertson (1987)—4


  1. “Showdown at Big Sky” was the first radio single, and I was quite impressed. Robbie’s voice is quite limited, but he puts it to good use. The balance between rockers and slower, meditative pieces is just about right. I even like ““Somewhere Down the Crazy River”. It’s like a little film noir. “Sweet Fire of Love” sounds like Robbie is guesting on a U2 track, rather than the other way around. It could just as easily have been a track on “Rattle and Hum”.

    Some people didn’t like the album because they claimed that it sounds more like Lanois than The Band. I’m not overly attached to The Band’s music, so I don’t see it as a problem. Robbie totally established his solo musical identity here. I was looking forward to more.

  2. I found this disappointing after his first album. Touting the New Orleans connection, one might hope foe “Robbie Robertson and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band”, but this is hardly the case. The album leans too far to the mellow side. (I even heard “What About Now” once in a grocery store, perhaps indicating that he had now established adult contemporary credibility). At best, the upbeat tunes reach mid-tempo. “Go Back to Your Woods”, “Night Parade” and “Resurrection” are fun, although “Shake This Town” and “Breakin’ the Rules” don’t really do either. Robbie’s voice is not strong enough to liven up these songs. At almost an hour, the album is a bit too long to hold interest over its length. None of the songs are horrible, but the album isn’t a grabber.