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Robbie Robertson

How to Become Clairvoyant

Review by Scott Prinzing

Robbie Robertson is someone who I’ve always been aware of for his work with The Band, but other than watching a video of The Last Waltz film by Martin Scorsese about 20 years ago, my only insight into his life and influences were through the first two Band albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, plus The Basement Tapes album they did with Dylan.  This past year I’ve been reading every biography and interview I could find about Robertson and The Band (there are many), due to a chapter I’ve been writing for a book on contemporary indigenous musicians.  Not many people know that Robertson is half Jewish and half Mohawk.  Many know that he’s from Canada, but it wasn’t until his first solo album in 1987 that he addressed his ancestry much in interviews or his songwriting.

This is Robertson’s fifth solo album in 25 years.  He’s done a lot of work with scoring films and compiling soundtrack music for films – mostly Scorcese’s – since 1980’s Carny, which he co-wrote and starred in with Jodi Foster and Gary Busey.  This album was well received by critics and his fans (it debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard chart).  It is adult contemporary rock with several famous friends chipping in: Eric Clapton, Tom Morello and Steve Winwood are the most well-known.  Robertson does downplay his distinctive guitar work as usual, but shares a lot of low-key soloing with Clapton.  For the record, Clapton has credited Big Pink for changing his life…and leading him to break up Cream!  The music on this album is worlds away from the Americana Robertson helped create with The Band, but since he was the chief songwriter for that band, it does have a familiarity to it.  I hope to review each of Robertson’s other albums in the future, but this one’s certainly a worthy place to start.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 2 at

Track by Track Review
Straight Down the Line
This opening song would sound at home on either of Robertson’s first two solo albums.  His distinctive soloing is complemented by a very cool, yet unorthodox, pedal steel guitar solo by Robert Randolph. Robertson sing/talks his way through the verses, describing interactions with an old bluesman and a gospel singer; thus giving both musical and lyrical nods to his blues and gospel influences: “Now he could croon a tune as good as anyone / And if he sings a song then that song's been sung / Some things have tradition some things shine like new / Some things you can't change no matter what you do.”
When the Night was Young
What follows is a typical mellow sing/talk tale about observing characters of the night life that would sound right at home on Storyville.  It actually wouldn’t sound too out of place on a latter day album by The Band, either. “Sign reads ‘God Bless America - Guns and Ammo’ / I'm not sure that's what He means / Sign reads repent the end is near / I'm not sure that's what we need.”
He Don’t Live Here No More
This one is a bit funkier than the first two.  When it was released as a single, Robertson played it on “The Late Show with David letterman,” backed by the band, Dawes.  Here Robertson plays a gritty gut string guitar solo.  It’s is the first song on which Clapton appears.  He provides harmony vocals, electric guitar and slide guitar.  It sounds like Robertson looking back on his hard party lifestyle when he and Martin Scorcese had a bachelor pad in the mid-70s.  Why would I think that?  Well, Marty Scorcese is pictured with Robbie in a photo on the lyric page for this song: “Inside of the belly of the whale / Outside they was beatin on the door / Somebody goin down tonight / I said boys he don't live here no more / He don't live here no more.”
The Right Mistake
While this song features organ by Steve Winwood and a solo by Clapton, it doesn’t seem to build on the first three songs as much.  It’s not a bad tune, but a bit mid-tempo, with some predictable lyrics: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure / One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure.”  Angela McCluskey’s harmony vocal lends a distinctive sound to the song, though.
This is Where I Get Off
Maybe that last song was bringing it down a bit to lead us into this more successful ballad.  It appears to be at least in part about Robertson’s leaving The Band: “Walking out on the boys / Was never the plan / We just drifted off course / Couldn't strike up the band.”  There are some nice blues lead tradeoffs between Robertson and Clapton that highlight each player’s individual tone and technique.
Fear of Falling
With Clapton’s name appearing first in the songwriting credit with Robertson, it doesn’t surprise me that this laid-back tune sounds a bit more like a Clapton tune, especially the chorus.  They sing it as a duet, along with dual guitar solos.  Winwood makes another appearance on organ.  Once again, the lyrics seem a bit more pedestrian here than that level of which I know Robertson is capable: “There was a time when I was lost / Couldn’t see the woods for the trees / How could I know how much it costs / ’Til I was on my knees.”
She’s Not Mine
The first thing that came to mind when I first heard this song was that it sounded a bit like a David Gilmour tune.  Clapton and Winwood sit in again.  There’s a bit of atmospheric backwards guitar that fits well.  Lyrically, it would sound like a longing for someone other than his wife if one didn’t know that Robertson seldom writes in first person about himself.  Having been a performing/traveling musician for much of his life, it could easily be about any number of romances in which he or his colleagues partook: “I come to town my work is done / Well I just got off the road / It’s a long time since I been with someone / I called this lady so divine / I asked her and I asked her / If she’d like to come out sometime.”
Madame X
When I first saw the title of this instrumental, and that both Clapton (its composer) and Trent Reznor (contributing “additional textures”) were on it, I expected something much more intricate or vibrant.  The mellow, almost ambient quality of it was a refreshing surprise.  It leads in nicely to the highlight of the album for me.
Robertson’s limited vocal range lends itself well to his almost talking, vocal style.  Here he enumerates various axmen who he refers to as “Brothers of the Blade.”  All of his guitar influences are in here, some by name, others by initials (“RJ” for Robert Johnson, etc.).  The one that was the coolest to see is Link Wray (Shawnee), who is not only a brother of the blade, but like Robertson (a Mohawk from Canada), is an indigenous North American.  The otherworldly guitar solo by Tom Morello underscores the ever-changing electric guitar that is rooted in these elder statesmen Robertson pays tribute to:  “One-eyed jacks King with the axe / Like Albert or Freddy / One-eyed jacks King with the axe / And of course BB was born ready.”
Won’t Be Back
Another Clapton/Robertson co-write, it is so slow that the drums are barely audible brush work. The funereal horns evoke the New Orleans influence of Robertson’s Storyville album again. 
How to Become Clairvoyant
My other favorite song on this album is the title track.  Without any of his rock star friends lending a hand, it really sounds the most like Robbie Robertson here.  At over six minutes, it’s the longest number of the set.  It has the most interesting story telling imagery of all the songs.  Perhaps that’s why it reminds me the most of his songwriting with the band: “Benedictine, sister to Isis and the black Madonna / Mistress of magic, goddess of the Nile / She could read the stars knew the secrets of the dead / And could see what kind of madness / Was stirring round in your head.”
Tango for Django
This very cool instrumental tribute to Django Reinhart wraps things up nicely, with Robertson playing an appropriate gut string guitar and ambient accordion and violin. 
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