RAMBLIN' ROUND: Robbie and Levon: 'Once Were Brothers'

Chris Pizzello | Invision/AP File PhotoRobbie Robertson

What do you do when two of your favorite musicians in one of your all-time favorites bands become estranged — mainly about disagreements over songwriting credits?

In my case, I've kept listening to both of their music.

I'm talking about Robbie Roberston and Levon Helm of The Band — the group of four Canadians and an Arkansas native who changed the course of American music. Today, they are credited as the driving force and inspiration of the Americana musical genre.

Both The Band and Robertson are back in the musical forefront — with Robertson's new album "Sinematic" and a new documentary titled "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band."

Also keeping their music in the spotlight, an expanded reissue box set of their second album, simply titled "The Band," was released this weekend. 

Helm not only played drums with The Band, he also served as one of three exceptional lead singers with the group, along with bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel. Not only were all three outstanding lead vocalists, they were great harmony singers as well. They stacked their vocals in different combinations to create a variety of sounds, encompassing everything from gospel to country, from field hollers to bluegrass.

Robertson, meanwhile, provided searing lead guitar riffs on his Fender Stratocaster. He also underplayed beautifully when a song required a lighter touch.

Playing in an era filled with guitar heroes, Robertson became one of my favorite guitarists — capable of holding his own with anyone while still developing a singular style. His virtuosity is showcased in the "The Last Waltz" — the Martin Scorcese film about the original group's 1976 final concert.

Robertson joins in Eric Clapton's rendition of "Further On Up the Road," ripping out a blistering solo, which Clapton answers. They engage in a good-natured guitar duel, with Robertson high on the neck of his Strat, letting loose with a torrent of needle-sharp notes, all with a look of pure joy on his face.

Robertson's virtuosity on lead guitar wasn't all he contributed to The Band. He also served as the group's chief songwriter — which would later become a source of contention with Helm.

One thing Robertson didn't do much of with The Band, is sing. With three of rock's all-time best singers already in the group in the persons of Helm, Danko and Manuel, Robertson typically gave the songs he wrote to his fellow Band-members to sing. Only The Band's organ wizard, keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, who didn't sing at all, provided fewer vocals to The Band's recordings than Robertson.

Although the original Band members never regrouped after "The Last Waltz," the other four members later began touring and recording again, sans Robertson. They recorded several more albums, with the best of them, released in 1993, "Jericho," containing riveting versions of Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" and Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City."

While Robertson wasn't touring with The Band, he embarked on a solo career, which included writing music for the movies, usually for films by Scorcese, who had become a close friend.

He has released a handful of albums through the years, filled with original songs, beginning with 1987's self-titled "Robbie Robertson." Although he certainly was no Caruso, I liked Robertson's vocals, a hybrid between singing and narrating in a film noir, world-weary voice.

Robertson always had a cinematic style of writing, going back to his best songs with The Band, such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Acadian Driftwood." His solo albums don't sound like The Band, by design, I'm sure. Perhaps reflecting his writing for the movies, they are filled with sonic landscapes and swirling sounds.

It's a production style Robertson has retained through his subsequent works, including his new album, "Sinematic." It's been eight years since Robertson's previous album, 2011's "How to Be A Clairvoyant" — but his songwriting chops are intact.

The song "Once Were Brothers" sounds as if it could be about a group of soldiers: "Once were brothers, brothers no more. We lost our connection, after the war," Robertson sings, adding that he can't remember "what we're fighting for."

As the song progresses, the final verses make it clear he's singing about his former musical brothers in The Band. With the passing of Manuel, Danko and Helm, the only survivors today are Robertson and Hudson.

"We stood together, like we were next of kin," Robertson sings — likely a nod to the photo entitled "Next of Kin" when The Band  gathered family members together for shot used on the inside cover of the group's debut album, "Music From Big Pink."

The song concludes with "There'll be no revival. There'll be no encore. Once were brothers, brothers no more."

Robertson has told how he went to visit Helm as Helm lay dying in hospital in 2012. Although they were estranged for a number of years, Robertson wanted to see his former musical comrade-in-arms. Robertson said he believes Helm knew he was there and they finally made peace.

I hope so — because the two have given the world such timeless music — both together with The Band and in their solo careers.

I believe one of the lines in "Once Were Brothers" alludes to Robertson's hopes as well:

"When that curtain goes down, we'll let go of the past.

Tomorrow's another day. Some things weren't meant to last."

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com


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