ROBBIE ROBERTSON of THE BAND passed away this week at the age of 80. Lyndon Noon pays tribute to a roots rock icon.
Succumbing to a long period of illness the peerless guitarist and songwriter Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death.
Often described as the Godfather of Americana his music was a distillation of the influences he absorbed as a member of The Hawks in the early sixties and who at the tender age of just 16 backed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. The Hawks already included Mississippian Levon Helm (steeped in traditions that later steered their musical path) and three members who were, like Robertson, Canadians: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Although initially a backup band, the Hawks were in fact the embryonic form of The Band. Traversing clubs and bars the length and breadth of North America, along the way they played all manner of musical styles including blues, rock’n’roll, bluegrass and folk stirring a pot that Robertson later described as his ” musical gumbo.”
1965 proved to be a pivotal year for Robbie and his cohorts. Darling of the folk purists Bob Dylan was about to go electric and on a recommendation from his Manager Albert Grossman was advised to check out The Hawks as a possible backing band. The link was perfect but was a baptism of fire as Dylan’s so called ‘sell out’ was greeted with disdain by audiences who were having no truck with this new direction. After a tumultuous tour the musicians took refuge in Woodstock, New York. It was 1967 and it was there that The Band as they became known found their feet. Put on a retainer by Dylan, for the first time in years the group had no touring commitments and had time to catch their breath.
With The Band strolling on the shores of success.
In a property known as The Pink House, the foundations were laid for a musical transformation, spearheaded by Robertson. By his own admission his formative years had seen a “screaming, raging” version of the young musician but all that changed during the period spent at Big Pink. Unlike many of his contempories “playing 100 solos a night” he wanted to create mood music and paint pictures with playing that was sensitive and emotional. Although the main songwriter in the collective, Robbie would freely admit that his fellow bandmates articulated his song writing in their own inimitable ways to create the magic. A fact he recognized and gave due credit for.
The period spent at The Pink House became the stuff of myth and legend and many of the recordings made there were left in the can until they eventually saw the light of day in 1975 as ‘The Basement Tapes’. Back in 1968 however it was time for The Band to strike out on their own and with Albert Grossman assuming Management duties they signed to Capitol Records. Over the next few years the group released 3 classic records – ‘Music From The Big Pink,’ ‘The Band’ and ‘Stagefright.’ The music was timeless and articulated themes from years long past that were interwoven with the kind of mythology that inspired today’s Americana genre. Songs like ‘The Weight,’ ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ are littered with historical references and grip the listener with their first person narrative.
As we look back in the rear view mirror of twentieth century music the scholars and musicologists will surely place Robertson at the apex of his craft, leaving as he does a body of work that influenced so many. His rustic, some may say back porch vision transported us back to a poignant place in time conjuring up dusty back roads and the quiet struggles of the working man. Reminders of an America long gone.