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January 28, 2011

4. Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant (429/Bella Coola Records): 'This is where I get off,' talk-sings the rock & roll legend about splitting from The Band 35 yers ago on his fifth solo album and first in 13 years 'This is where I move on/I know where I went wrong/'Long the way.' I still haven't forgiven Robertson for that, mainly because he left behind three of the greatest rock singers of all time in Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, and his hoarse whisper of a vocal has certainly hampered him in his attempts to build a solo career. After exploring his Native American ancestry on his last two albums, Robertson takes a look at his music career on this one, from his playful take on the mythic genesis of the blues in the opening 'Straight Down the Line' (featuring a searing Robert Randolph pedal steel solo) and his beginnings with the Hawks  before meeting Dylan in 'When the Night Was Young,' featuring name checks for Highway 61, the Chelsea Hotel and Andy Warhol ('We could change the world/Stop the war/Never seen nothing like this before'), to his drug-fueled lost Hollywood years with Marty Scorsese in the tribal beat of 'He Don't Live Here No More' ('I was riding on the night train/I was moving in the fast lane/I was only trying to kill the pain/Too far gone') and his reasons for breaking up The Band in 'This Is Where I Get Off' ('We drifted off course/Couldn't strike up the band'). He's put together a crack group here, though, buttressed by the rhythm section of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas. Eric Clapton plays guitar on six of the tracks and co-wrote three of them in a collaboration which began almost three years ago as the genesis of the album. Steve Winwood's soulful organ and Angela McCluskey's sensuous background vocals contribute to the slinky J.J. Cale R&B blues of 'The Right Mistake,' which features a patented crisp Clapton solo in its tale of regret. In 'Fear of Falling,' Robbie and Eric duet, as the song intersperses Clapton's acoustic and electric solos with Winwood's gurgling gospel keybs in its expression of commitment phobia, while 'She's Not Mine' is a swirling, expansive set-piece that captures the elusive mystery of romance. 'Madame X' and 'Tango for Django' are the disc's two instrumentals, the former featuring a gentle soundtrack-like guitar interplay between Robertson and Clapton, with 'additional textures' by Trent Reznor that give it another aural layer, while the latter boasts a Middle Eastern/African feel conveyed by Robertson's plucked gut string guitar. 'Axman' is a celebration of classic rock guitarists, offering a compendium of styles, starting with Hendrixian 'wah wah' as Robertson shouts out (while Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello plays tributes to) Robert Johnson, Link Ray, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Jimmy James (which was Hendrix's name when he first met Robbie). Robertson and Clapton join vocals on 'Won't Be Back,' a track in the mode of 'Change the World,' the Grammy-winning Song of the Year from the Phenomenon soundtrack that Robertson found for Clapton and Babyface, while 'Clairvoyant' is an urgent plea for the ability to divine the future ('In these strange times I wonder/What tomorrow will bring'), featuring another cutting Robert Randolph pedal steel solo. In the end, if How to Become a Clairvoyant sounds more like a Clapton album than one by The Band, it's because Robbie Robertson never really had a particularly distinctive personal style as a solo artist.  Still, by focusing on his legendary past, he finally discovers a voice to call his own.

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