The Last Waltz — the 1978 Martin Scorsese film that documented the Band’s last concert together — provided a fitting and moving swan song to one of rock music’s most important groups. But it also blew the lid off the secret of Robbie Robertson’s sexiness.
As the creative force behind the Band – Bob Dylan’s finest and most collaborative backing group and later the makers of a unique sort of American folk music – the singer-songwriter-guitarist established himself as one of the most respected musical figures in the rock world. Then the movie came out, and for a time all anyone could talk about was how handsome and charismatic the guy was.
More than a decade later, Robertson still seems a bit embarrassed when reminded of all the attention he received. “It was a fluke,” he says with a laugh. “When the movie came out, there were all these articles talking about how I supposedly had all this charisma. And believe me, I took a lot of teasing for this. I would get in a car, and my buddies would say, ‘Wait, wait, be careful, you’re getting some of that charisma on me. Would you move over, please?’ ”
That old charisma is very much in evidence on Storyville, his latest effort and a wildly ambitious musical journey that reflects Robertson’s deep and long-standing love for the music of New Orleans. It is only his second solo album, following 1987’s acclaimed Robbie Robertson. Before that comeback, Robertson had taken an extended sabbatical from the rock world – “my breather” is how he describes it – and concentrated on film and film music. He starred in Carny with Jodie Foster in 1980 and worked on the music for Scorsese’s Raging Bull, King of Comedy and Color of Money.
“Doing those things was sort of like going back to school for me,” says Robertson. “I was just kind of regrouping from the Seventies. At that time, everything seemed so unsure. The best thing for me to do was just to stand back awhile and try to get a bit of focus.
“A lot of my peers just kind of plunged ahead, anyway,” he continues. “But I didn’t want to do that. I never wanted to make records just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to go into it with a sense of purpose. I felt that way making my last record, and I feel it even more so this time.”
Part of that feeling, he says, comes from the gratifying experience of delving further into the music of a place that has always fascinated him. “New Orleans is the most musical place I’ve ever been in my life, where there’s more music per square block than anywhere on the planet,” says Robertson. “Music just seeps out of every crack and every swamp down there. Playing with Ronnie Hawkins when we were the Hawks, back in the old days, was my ticket to the fountainhead. When I was 14, I was in a group called Little Caesar and the Consoles, which was a Huey ‘Piano’ Smith-wannabe band. That’s how long this obsession has been going on.”
The album also finds Robertson growing more confident as a singer; at times he comes off like a sort of sexy soul man. “I’ll accept that, because I haven’t thought of a better way to look at it,” he says with a chuckle. “When I started writing songs for this album, something just happened to my throat. A certain sound was coming out that hadn’t before, and it really suited the material.” And happily, Robertson — one of rock’s most tasteful guitarists ever — also plays a lot more this time around. “I’m sort of rediscovering the guitar,” he says smiling.
To help him bring Storyville to life, Robertson assembled some remarkable local talent, like Aaron and Ivan Neville and the Rebirth Brass Band. He also made room for some talented out-of-towners like Neil Young, as well as two of his distinguished Band mates, keyboardist Garth Hudson and bassist-singer Rick Danko.
Recently, Hudson, Danko and Band drummer-vocalist Levon Helm have been working on a new album as the Band. In the years since The Last Waltz, the group has toured without Robertson, but this is its first studio album. Asked if he’s ambivalent about that project, Robertson says: “No, I’m not. I’m not going to make the record with them, but I’ve offered to make some sort of contribution. Even without me and Richard Manuel [who died in 1986] this group is still a bundle of talent. I hope it’s tremendous.”
Back in the days of its 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink, the Band had a sort of vaguely Amish antichic look – black hats, black suits and facial hair. “We didn’t want to be faddish,” Robertson says. “We didn’t want to come in wearing polka dots or paisley or whatever the flavor-of-the-Sixties-month was then. Those were basically the clothes we were wearing up there in Woodstock. And I don’t dress all that differently today. But back then, I remember I was driving into New York City one day, and a state trooper stopped me for speeding. He looked at me and said, ‘We’ll let you off this time, Rabbi, but please be careful in the future.’ “
Whatever he wears, Robbie Robertson remains an artist of undeniable greatness and a man with endless style.