Robbie Robertson has had a memorable year, already. He turned 70 on July 5 and has been knee-deep in all sorts of projects.
“I’ve got so much going on,” he moaned good-naturedly when we talked.
The two accomplishments that are front and center are two new triumphs, The Band Live at the Academy of Music 1971, and the book, Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World.
Robertson was the highly respected lead guitarist, chief spokesman and songwriter of The Band, one of the most acclaimed rock and roll bands of all time. The Band broke up officially on Thanksgiving night of 1976, with the memorable concert (and subsequent movie) known as The Last Waltz. I used to RUN to my local record shop on Long Island whenever a Band album came out and I tried to be the first one on line to buy concert tickets to their shows.
Robertson co-wrote the book with his son Sebastian, Jim Guerinot and Jared Levine, gearing it to the children’s market, a bold and shrewd marketing decision from a commercial point of view. It is an instructive way to educate young people about the glory of the music that, indeed, changed the world forever.
First, the music: To close out 1971, The Band played four nights of concerts at the Academy of Music in Manhattan. The result was the scalding, widely praised live album Rock of Ages. Everyone, it seemed, loved the group’s outpouring of familiar and unreleased songs that were featured (including on a re-issue, a few songs with Bob Dylan, whom The Band had famously and brilliantly backed at various points from 1965 to 1969).
Everyone except Robbie Robertson, that is. He felt the album was not well produced and thus failed to capture The Band at its best on stage. He was thrilled, all these years alter, to have an opportunity to re-master the concert recordings and bring those gigs back to life.
“I was so happy that I got to do this,” he told me from Los Angeles in a recent phone conversation. ‘I had never got it right.”
He said this album’s sound quality remained a lifelong frustration, “of all the things I’ve ever done.”
The record’s saga began early in 1972 when he listened to the rough mixes of the New Year’s Eve concert — to his horror. “I called Phil (the producer, Phil Ramone) and said, ‘This is not good.’ Phil said, ‘I know.’ I came back to Woodstock and told the guys (in The Band), ‘I don’t like it.’ I had to re-mix the whole record. Everybody loved it — except me! It sounded so muddy.”
Robertson even reconvened to a recording studio in Miami, in an attempt to solve the problem, with Capitol’s release date beckoning.
Finally, Robertson concocted a representative version of the great concerts, which featured The Band at the top of its game. I didn’t get to see The Band play at the Academy in December 1971. But I did see them in Central Park on June 30, 1971, and remember it well (I also have a shoddy bootleg of the performance). It was a terrific show, featuring five determined musicians.
At its best, The Band was a brilliant music machine. Robertson’s all-too-brief guitar solos crackled. Garth Hudson’s keyboard wizardry added a shine that no other rock band could touch. Rick Danko’s fretless bass and Richard Manuel’s piano mastery gave the sound a special dimension. Levon Helm’s rock-steady drumming held the whole sound together. Plus, Manuel, Helm and Danko sang beautifully, complementing one another and, best of all, traded the lead vocals across heir instruments. These guys were the most extraordinary band around.
As with The Beatles, the multiple singers were remarkable and the sum of the parts was the key, not any sense of a virtuoso on the scene
Fortunately, the re-release provides a DVD showing The Band performing King Harvest and The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, so fans can catch The Band as they were in December 1971 — for lifelong Band admirers, that alone is worth the price of the package.
How does it differ from The Last Waltz, The Band’s signature concert performance captured on film by director Martin Scorsese, you may ask?
If you’ve seen The Last Waltz, what you notice are two things: Just how great The Band was on stage and how much pressure the group was under during that tense show.
In 1971, The Band played really well, as usual — and showcased a white-hot gathering of “the best horn men in New York” — but didn’t have the pressure of a final gig and a movie (and the burden of backing so many stars in one-take performances) hanging over the musicians’ heads.
“The Last Waltz,” Robertson observed sagely, “was a celebration, and we were playing for all of the other people. At the Academy, we were paying for ourselves.”
One of the most intriguing and fruitful alliances in rock and roll history is the collaboration of Bob Dylan and The Band. Dylan sings on a few songs, including a wonderful, slapdash version of Like a Rolling Stone and the concert debuts of When I Paint My Masterpiece and Down in the Flood.
Of course, I had to ask Robertson how Dylan came to be included.
It started when Dylan visited Robertson at his home in Woodstock a few weeks before the scheduled concerts.
“Bob came to my house,” Robertson recalled fondly. “He liked the coffee i was making. I told him that we were going to do these shows in the city and asked him if he’d like to want to spend New Year’s with us. He said, ‘That sounds like a good idea.'”
The guys hadn’t actually worked out what songs they would do in advance. But they had all played together so many times that, as with a championship sports team, each individual knew the other’s movements by rote.
Today, Robertson is finally content with the quality of the live music. He can sit back and, like a fan, marvel at the subtle genius of his band mates, Danko’s mastery of the fretless bass and Helm’s reliable drumming and Manuel’s vocal on “The Shape I’m In,” in particular.
Robertson, who told me that he had been “nauseous” the first time he heard the recording, feels redemption.
“Now,” he said triumphantly, “I can finally sleep at night.”
I asked Sebastian Robertson, who mixed the New Year’s Eve concert and acted as a creative consultant, to weigh in on the new album:
“Richard Manuel is at peak performance. His piano playing is brilliant and effortless. Vocally he delivers on a level that evokes the deepest emotion in me. ‘I Shall Be Released’ in that falsetto and the honesty in ‘Rockin’ Chair’ are pure genius.
“Levon is a rock. As the other guys in the Band slip and slide around Levon never wavers. Holding down the fort like a 4-star general never missing a beat or a note.
“Garth was really on one for the New Year’s Eve gig. ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ to circus, to blues to his own interpretation of rock. 100% original. They broke the mold after that guy.
“Rick emits joy. Plain and simple he loves what he’s doing so much that you feel that love and that connection to the music through him. It’s a gift I’ve never seen or heard before in another musician.
“Good ol Pops. My dad might be the greatest at guitar fills that there ever was. He fills the gaps with such a unique twist and taste. You only need 2 notes to know that it’s an RR solo. He walks the tightrope and and just as he’s about to make it to the other side he jumps off only to land on his feet.”
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Robertson’s new book is something else entirely. It is a personal project, in which he and his co-authors hope to show kids about the rich history and indelible impact of rock and roll, in a fun, respectful way.
The writers take one song from a few dozen rock and roll masters — ranging from Bob Dylan (Forever Young, which The Band played on) to The Beatles (Here Comes the Sun), Chuck Berry to Buddy Holly and lots of others in between.
Much of this was the music that Robertson either had heard as a teenager or came to admire a professional musician and songwriter. It inspired him to do great work of his own.
“The book is something i’ve been working on,” he said. “It is. something aimed at kids (to about 13-years-old) at a pivotal time in their musical foundation.”
“We slip in Marvin Gaye and James Brown,” he said proudly. “We had felt, ‘Someone should do something to introduce kids to the greatest recording artists of all time. It’s about the songs, not, say, Mozart.”
I had to chide Robertson about what seemed like an obvious omission: His own great songs. He could have easily included All La Glory or Christmas Must Be Tonight, among others, to the collection.
He laughed. “I didn’t want to come across as tooting my own horn.”.
Co-author Sebastian Robertson adds: “Sometimes you just need a good launching point and that’s what we tried to create with this book. A roadmap for parents and kids to travel down the rock and roll highway. The idea here is that within these 27 artists you find something that you really connect to. For my son, it was Bob Marley. So you take that inspiration and dig deeper into his music and then into reggae music. As you grow older and your musical taste evolves you’ll find different artists in this book will become of interest. It’s something you can revisit for many years to come.”