Critic's pick: Robbie Robertson, 'How to Become Clairvoyant'

By Walter Tunis
Contributing Music Writer

Robbie Robertson has always been something of a name-dropper.

When he departed The Band more than 34 years ago, he conjured a grand going-away party with a guest list that boasted Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He then enlisted Martin Scorsese to make a film about it and dubbed the whole thing The Last Waltz.

Robertson pulls a similar trick on How to Become Clairvoyant, his first solo album in 13 years. Among the hired help: contemporaries Eric Clapton (another Last Waltz alumnus) and Steve Winwood, along with generation-removed henchmen Trent Reznor and Tom Morello. Even one of Clairvoyant's more accessible tunes, a pop-soul meditation titled When the Night Was Young, spot-checks the ghosts of Hank Williams ("Luke the Drifter") among the back-road tent shows, and Andy Warhol in a hotel lobby "waiting for the late-night muse."

Yes, Robertson is what you call connected. He doesn't mind calling on his pals, either � be it through their guitar smarts or simply their spiritual presence. Yet what surfaces on Clairvoyant is a singular sound, one that mirrors the atmospheric designs of his early post-Last Waltz albums more than the epic Americana songs he composed 40 years ago for The Band.

Yet some of the imagery of the past does surface every so often on Clairvoyant. Robertson all but says as much during This Is Where I Get Off ("everything you leave behind catches up in another time"). It's sung with slow, after-hours reflection, and one can picture the smoky baritone of The Band's Richard Manuel (who died in 1986) in the song's front seat.

Clairvoyant stands in better sonic company, though, with Robertson's 1987 self-titled solo debut album (during the warmly atmospheric Won't Be Back) and the gorgeously sculpted sound structures that dominated 1994's underrated Music for the Native Americans (the ambient ebb and flow that swirls about the Clapton-written instrumental Madame X).

Robertson also gets a charge out of mixing things up with his guitar brethren, as in the gospel whine of Robert Randolph on the funkified album-opener Straight Down the Line and the record's most soulful and straight-up mash-up with Clapton, Fear of Falling.

But Clairvoyant all comes down to Robertson rising above the elbow-rubbing. He does it beautifully as the nocturnal flow of the title tune turns to daylight and on the album-closing Tango for Django, in which the Gypsy spirit of the great Django Reinhardt is spread over dark, chamber-style strings.

Sure, Robertson loves having his pals around. But if there is any second sight to Clairvoyant, it sits in Robertson's ability to look to the past for inspiration, modestly refashion it and move on.

The SLG, Savoy Jazz and Denon Records catalogs are available for purchase at the following sites: