After calling it a day with seventies’ supergroup The Band, and an interim period spent scoring soundtracks for Martin Scorsese films, guitarist Robbie Robertson has teamed up with Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel and U2 to create an impeccable first solo outing. Mark Prendergast lends the album an appreciative ear.
As he sings, his guitars fall beautifully off the words like sparkling jewels, almost like aural tears. A very mystical song, its restrained and dignified organisation spring up at you like a totem pole rising from a distant landscape. Daniel Lanois' production is kinetically true to the spirit of the piece while his tom-tom percussion and backing vocal perfectly imbue a primitive backdrop. Peter Gabriel was responsible for the keyboards and drum programming. David Bottrill, who used to work in Grant Avenue studios in Canada with the Lanois brothers before teaming up with Gabriel two and a half years back for So, takes up the story:
"Peter is an old friend of Robbie's. The connection was even stronger when Daniel was producing U2. Robbie had come to Ireland, in early 1987, to do two songs with them: 'Testimony' and 'Sweet Fire Of Love'. From there he went straight to Bath, to Peter's old studio (Gabriel has since built a new one in Wiltshire). He had some material with him. We went straight into 'Broken Arrow'. It was already written but it involved Peter to help out on the Linn drum programming. He also contributed the Prophet 5 keyboard parts and some piano. The song was not recorded at all before Robbie got there, so it's true to say that 'Broken Arrow' had its origins and birth in Bath with Peter. Robbie was very level-headed with no false pretentions, and one knows easily where one stands. The team on 'Broken Arrow' was myself, Peter, Danny and Robbie - that was it. The drums, bass and guitar sounds were put down in Los Angeles after the three or four weeks spent in England. The tambourine sound came from a Linn II drum machine, detuned quite far down. Peter's sound came from a Delta Lab DL2. We went for control room recording, because there is great communication that way when building a track. What we were looking for was great performances and not technical stuff. There was no reverb a lot of the time. There was a lot of acoustic drum, which came from an old hairy drum - an ethnic drum which Peter has. Nowadays, there's a great trend towards control room recording and this was done that way; set up the mics and away we go."
Bottrill concedes, like some people, that there is a distinct Gabriel influence on the record. "Well, So was fairly close in time to it, therefore its sound would have had a bearing on Robbie's album. It was also Daniel - the interaction between the three. Also, a lot of the players are the same."
Gabriel, Lanois, Manu Katche, Tony Levin and Larry Klein do appear on both records, but they are two distinct items with full personalities of their own. 'Broken Arrrow' fades out to let us into the final track of Side One: the towering 'Sweet Fire Of Love' with U2. This was the instant jam that Robertson was bowled over by as he pulled scraps of lyrics from his pockets and simultaneously finished off a song on the phone with Eric Clapton, for the Martin Scorsese film. Nothing here could be compared to So, for this is a meeting of spirits in a whirlpool of great rock noise. Coming at you with Edge's characteristic ratcheting electric guitar, the song is taken up by a thumping beat courtesy of the archetypal Larry Mullen Jnr/Adam Clayton rhythm machine. With Bono singing higher than normal and Robertson growling low, it becomes a heroic dual call-and-response epic in true U2 style to the power of love over evil. There are some fine milky guitar stretches by Edge, some tough powerhouse guitar breaks by Robertson himself, but the finale beats all when both guitarists head for Jimi Hendrix land and all its glorious feedback sounds.
"... the overwhelming emotional punch is provided by Peter Gabriel's brilliant vocal harmonies..."
Producer Daniel Lanois: "I think there is a naive spirit to this record, which is something that is not easy to get when you've been in the business as long as Robbie has. His passion is right up and that's as it should be when you're producing work. He's a strong writer and I think the album has a spirit to it that listeners will really enjoy."
With a first side of such intensity, it's hard to imagine that you've only heard 4/9ths of the record. In fact, few complete albums can match the range of great quality music found on Side One of this. If there is a weakness here, it's that Side Two as a unit is not as strong as Side One, but it's sure loaded with intensity.
'American Roulette' is a helter-skelter, fast lane homage to James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe that cleverly evokes the get-rich-get-famous-quick American materialistic dream and the dubiousness of believing it through some tense soloing between Robertson and Tony Levin (on Chapman Stick bass). The song features ex-Band man Garth Hudson on keyboards (he's also on 'Fallen Angel'), the BoDeans and Maria McKee of Lone Justice on backing vocals. The animated blonde girl singer hit the record in its final stages, during the summer of '87 in Woodstock, and was subjected to an agreeable but punishing work-out with Robertson that turned out great on the track.
'Somewhere Down The Crazy' river is next, a prosaic almost novella in song that floats along on a carousel dance rhythm (courtesy of Katche/Levin) and tilts from reggae to waltz and back again. Robertson talks and sings in a tone that smoulders in all those urban jazz elements of the States, nose blues, the 'noir' tradition of American writing, the deep south. From the compacted lyrical images - 'stranger in strange land', 'too hot to sleep', 'fields empty, abandoned '59 Chevy', 'the Voodoo stuff don't do nothing for me' etc - one could make a deduction that it's a white man carelessly stumbling into a Negro time-warp out of the everglades, but it could be any number of things - Mexico, the Mardi Gras, black magic, a dream - it's that dense. This is the diamond cut of Side Two, featuring Robertson at his most lyrically lucid and some neat omnichord guitar playing by Daniel Lanois.
The next track, 'Hell's Half Acre', begins as a scrunching rocker and boogies its way through riff and verse in an unspectacular fashion. Lyrically, it tells the story of an American Indian who gets drafted and is mentally and spiritually deformed by his experiences of Vietnam. With all good intentions and good sound moral principles, the song nevertheless founders on its poor musical undertow. Robertson was never meant to couch his words in straight ahead guitar rock. Daniel Lanois is conspicuous by his absence from this track.
'Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight' brings the record back to well above par by its use of spatial instrumentation and reverberant sound that enhances and complements the lyrics. A song about a wanted man and his inevitable death. It could be a gangland shooting or a police manhunt finale but, whichever, Robertson is clearly identified with the victim. 'Can't tell the tears from the rain' he half-sings, half-cries. Bill Dillon, Manu Katche and Tony Levin are here again as on 'Hell's Half Acre' but Lanois reappears with tasteful percussion and guitar. Rick Danko, another old Band mate, adds some background vocals. All in all a satisfying song, full of atmosphere and musical variety.
The last track 'Testimony' is in many ways disappointing. A bulging, gut-hanging rock blow-out with U2 that never really gets off the ground. 'Testimony' is characterised by Gil Evan's horn section and Edge's click rhythm guitar riff. The awkward lyrics only really work on the main verse:
Bear witness, I'm wailing like the wind
Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again
In these hands, I've held the broken dream
In my soul I'm howling at the moon.
Like 'Sweet Fire Of Love', this track was worked on in Peter Gabriel's old studio near Bath, as engineer Dave Bottrill explains: "We did work on these. We spent a lot of the time editing the Irish material. There were lots of raw tapes of Irish tracks - two or three of each! They were very long arrangements that needed to be broken down. They were really live jams that were modified and improved."
So there you have it, a very strong record and a splendid comeback for one of American rock's legendary survivors. The quality of 'Fallen Angel', 'Broken Arrow', 'Sweet Fire Of Love' and 'Somewhere Down The Crazy River' is definitely better than anything Robbie Robertson did with The Band. How many new groups could architect even one of these songs? How many other '60s rockers could better their past glories? Just for attention to detail alone Robertson deserves a prize, but there is so much more to the music, so very much more...
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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