Sometimes an artist or musician resonates with your sensibilities and passions in a way that sets off a chain reaction of inspiration. For me, Robbie Robertson, who died on August 8, 2023 at the age of 80, was one of those artists. His music and life story continue to inspire me on an almost daily basis.
Robertson's influence in my life began when I was 19. That is when I first discovered his enormous talent and charisma. As lead guitarist and primary songwriter for the seminal rock group, The Band, Robertson helped revolutionize American popular music with compositions like "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Seeing his performance in The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese film documenting the Band's final concert in November 1976, I felt an instant and deep connection to Robertson's inspiring musicianship and compelling presence. From the first chords I heard him play, I could feel the depth and intensity of this man's love affair with music. That had a profound impact on my own desire to create and express myself through music--a desire that led to the founding of Global Chant and everything that came with it, including The Chanter's Guide and the countless chants I have played and composed. The most important way that Robbie Robertson shaped my experience as a chanter was by showing me how powerful music can be when expressed in a passionate and inspiring manner.
Here, I want to honor Robbie Robertson by focusing on three of my favorite moments from The Last Waltz. This tribute will feature video clips of some extraordinary guitar playing:
1. "It Makes No Difference"
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Robertson said that he wrote this song, a genuine and poignant expression of heartache, to feature Rick Danko's plaintiff vocals and some exceptional instrumentation, including a tradeoff of solos between Garth Hudson on sax and Robbie on his bronze 1954 Stratocaster. The guitar work here is delicate and subtle; yet the emotional intensity comes through strongly. If you listen to the original soundtrack album, you will discover a fuller version of this amazing guitar solo. To this day, I can't tell you why the filmmakers chose to edit Robbie's solo, but his virtuosity and passion manage to shine through nonetheless. Take a listen:
2. "Caravan" with Van Morrison
Van Morrison playing with The Band seems like an irresistible combination. On The Band's fourth album, Cahoots, the song "4% Pantomime" highlights the exceptional dueling vocals of Morrison and Richard Manual. in The Last Waltz, The Band backs up Morrison on a high-energy rendition of his giant hit, "Caravan."
Robbie's solo towards the end of this song is so smooth and soulful that it causes Morrison himself to stop for a brief moment to just take it in and savor the groove. Immediately afterwards, the combined energy of all the musicians onstage builds to a crescendo when Morrison goes into a spontaneous set of Rockettes-style leg kicks. Based on the facial expressions of the other musicians onstage, you can tell that this behavior was unplanned and something of a delightful surprise:
3. "Forever Young" and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" with Bob Dylan
When Bob Dylan "went electric" on his infamous 1965-66 world tour, the five musicians that later became known as "The Band" served as his backup band. Together they encountered unprecedented levels of hostility and aggression on the part of folk music traditionalists who felt betrayed by Dylan's decision to go with more of a rock-and-roll sound. Years later, they all came to realize that the tour had been instrumental in revolutionizing American popular music.
During that tour, Dylan put his musicians through hell with his reluctance to rehearse and his penchant to change things up on the fly. You can see these tendencies in the following clip. Earlier in the set, before the cameras started rolling, Dylan and The Band had played a rocking version of a traditional folk song called "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down."
The video begins with a delicate rendition of the Dylan-composed lullaby, "Forever Young." This performance is simply touching. The Band displays all of the mastery and subtlety that became their signature over the years. The song includes not one but TWO heartfelt Robbie Robertson guitar solos. His playing is so beautiful and expressive that it can move you to tears. This is truly a guitarist at the peak of his musical powers.
Just before Robbie's second solo, Dylan informs him and his bandmates that they are going to segue back into "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." Robbie is taking in this information while never losing focus on his intensely emotional guitar playing. Dylan then instructs The Band to hold a D7 chord at the end of "Forever Young" while awaiting his cue. Less-experienced musicians might not have been able to adjust so smoothly, but The Band makes the seamless transition from a slow song to an uptempo rocker look effortless and even enjoyable. Just notice the smile on Rick Danko's face as he anticipates Dylan's next move.
I would be remiss in writing a tribute to Robbie Robertson without honoring the rest of The Band. This was an incomparable brotherhood of five extremely gifted musicians, each one bringing something invaluable to their distinctive sound. So, it seems fitting to conclude with a few brief thoughts about the other four guys, whom I had the great thrill of seeing perform live when The Band toured without Robbie in 1983:
Levon Helm. In his memoir, Testimony, Robbie describes Levon as a "beam of light on drums" whose whole body expressed his intense musicality. Levon was the real deal, born and raised in the Mississippi Delta within 100 mile of musicians like Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Carl Perkins. Much of what Robbie wrote about in songs like "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" was based on Levon's actual life experience. To me, Levon Helm is the very embodiment of rock-and-roll. His joy in playing this music was absolutely contagious. I can't imagine anyone else's vocals being any more perfect for songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" or "Ophelia."
Rick Danko. A natural musician with perfect pitch, Rick seemed like one of those rare people who could just pick up an instrument and make it sound great. He had his own uniquely beautiful style as both a vocalist ("Stage Fright") and bass player ("Don't Do it"). Playful and funny, Rick also had a heartbreakingly vulnerable side that comes through in songs like "Sip the Wine."
Richard Manuel. Everything about Richard Manuel conveyed his soulfulness and his pure tender heart. Just listen to his singing on "Whispering Pines," a song that he and Robbie co-wrote. A sensitive and troubled man, Richard took his own life in 1986 at the age of 42. His death felt like the loss of a family member. To hear him sing on songs like "The Shape I'm In" or "King Harvest" is to know and love him.
Garth Hudson. A classically trained musician, Garth might have been able to play for a symphony orchestra or lead his own jazz band. Robbie wrote about his first time jamming with Garth that "he played brilliantly, in a more complex way than anybody we had ever heard." Garth introduced his bandmates to more intricate chord progressions and jazzier arrangements than they had been accustomed to playing. The last living member of The Band, Garth is a multi-instrumentalist who plays masterful keyboards, saxophone, accordion, and synthesizer. He was also responsible for recording the classic Basement Tapes featuring The Band's collaboration with Bob Dylan. His bandmates gave Garth free rein to do whatever he wanted on the opening of the song "Chest Fever," resulting in some of the wildest and most sophisticated solos in the history of rock music. From what I can tell, he never did the same thing twice.
Finally, I offer my gratitude to Robbie Robertson and The Band for all the ways they have enriched our lives with their music and inspiration: Thank you!
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