One afternoon more than a decade ago, Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton were hanging out at Robertson's Los Angeles studio, when Clapton spotted Robertson's prized 1927 Martin acoustic guitar in a corner. Before long, they were trading licks. Says Robertson, "I thought, 'Well, in case something happens, we'll just lay this down on tape.'"
Those informal recordings, cut over a few days, became the seeds of the Band guitarist's latest album, How to Become Clairvoyant. Now, on a limited, signed collectors set available on Robertson's website & two CDs, three LPs, a DVD and a 50-page book of photos—fans can go even deeper into the album. "We were trying to find the emotion and the subtleties in the playing," says Robertson. "We thought, 'Nobody's ever going to hear this, so we can be really truthful.'"
Key tracks on the set include an early take of "Fear of Falling," featuring lead vocals from Clapton; "In the War Zone," a stomping electro cut performed with reggae legends Sly and Robbie; and "The Magician," a funky tune that grew out of a conversation between the two guitar greats. "One day, I confessed to Eric that when I was young, I didn't want to be a musician—I wanted to be a magician. He said, 'Oh, my God, me too!'" Best of all is an acoustic version of the Clapton-penned instrumental "Madame X," which sounds like a trippier cousin to "Tears in Heaven."
A special feature on the DVD allows listeners to become producers, remixing Robertson's and Clapton's guitar parts from the original multitrack files. "I've done Band box sets—that was all about history," Robertson says. "But this has an urgency to it that relates to today. It's a very modern package—it feels like we're embracing a new model." Still, the set also looks back: For the photo book, Robertson compiled handwritten lyrics, decades-old portraits by artist Richard Prince, and late-Seventies shots of the guitarist tackling his old friend Martin Scorsese in Central Park. Says Robertson, "The images pull you deeper into the songs."
Robertson, who has played only one full concert since 1976's The Last Waltz, has talked about hitting the road with the Band-inspired L.A. crew Dawes, who have backed him during several recent TV appearances, including Letterman. "They're really good, and they're a band—it's different than just getting a bunch of individual musicians and trying to make them click," he says. "They're all at the top of their game. I'm the one that's a little rusty." Dawes singer Taylor Goldsmith was equally psyched after recent rehearsals: "There were moments where he'd go into his solos, and I'd realize, 'Whoa, nobody else plays guitar that way.'"
Robertson is also ready to dig into the memoir he recently signed a deal to publish. Aided by journals he's kept since 1967, the book will cover everything from his teenage years with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins to helping Bob Dylan go electric to Big Pink. "I can't help but look at it in a film-structure way," he says of the book. "I know I don't want to start at the beginning, and I don't want to start at the end.
"This record did something for me that caught me off-guard," Robertson adds. "Things rose to the surface I never would have expected. Now I really feel like just going in the room, closing the door and rolling up my sleeves."