Robbie Robertson On The Band: ‘I Hoped We Would Have A Timeless Quality’
“I hoped when we were making music originally, that we would have a timeless quality to what we were doing.” Robbie Robertson is talking to Radio.com about the work he did as a member of The Band. Robertson left the group in 1977, leading to their eventual demise (although they reunited without him for a few years in the ’80s and ’90s). But they were timeless. In 2013, their influence is a strong as ever, and arguably stronger than it’s been in decades. They have had a profound impact on some of the most relevant bands of today, including Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne and a little combo called Mumford & Sons. In fact, Mumford & Sons and Jim James of My Morning Jacket contribute to the liner notes of brand new Band 4 CD/1 DVD box set, Live At The Academy Of Music 1971, produced by Robertson.
Levon Helm (drums/vocals/mandolin), Rick Danko (bass, vocals, fiddle) and Richard Manuel (keyboards, vocals, drums) have all passed away. Only Garth Hudson (organ/horns) and Robertson, the band’s guitarist, survive, who says that the process of listening to the tapes for this box set was a bittersweet experience.
“There’s all kinds of different emotions.” Robertson tells Radio.com. ”I go from a place of being very proud, and really enjoying the extraordinary talent of my bandmates to some real sadness as well. It’s only Garth and I left. I can’t help but to veer between these two places.”
The performances on the new box set were originally used on the 1972 live Band album Rock Of Ages, but Robertson felt the need to return to the performance tapes and offer them in a new (and remixed) context. ”I have to say, it has been such a joy being able to revisit this thing, expand upon it, because I’ve been living with this all these years. I never felt satisfied with what I had done: it was my responsibility to mix this back in the day.”
What went wrong? “Something happened, and I did the best I could with the people I was working with, but I knew deep down, that I didn’t give it the presentation of other stuff that I had done with the Band or other stuff I had done in my life. I was the recording engineer on some of our records, it’s always been a part that I played in this thing. A lot of the band’s records, I mixed, usually with an engineer. This was something I always felt… I was in the wrong studio situation, the wrong people, I did the best I could.
“But now, I’m cool. I can sleep at night.”
Although it’s long past the point where there can be any sort of Band reunion, was Garth Hudson involved in the box set? “I talked to him a while ago, he was in the midst of doing some new music. It’s surprising how much of a forward thinker he is, and I love the idea that he’s doing some new music. He’s one of the most special musicians that God ever put here.”
The performances feature the Band joined by a horn section, with the arrangements by Allen Toussaint. Bob Dylan also joined the Band for an encore at one of the shows collected in the box. He mentions a few of his favorite moments on the box set: “I thought Richard did a great job – everybody did – on ‘The Shape I’m In.’ I thought it was really good, the way we played it that night. On ‘Caledonia Mission,’ I thought Rick sang it that night as good as I ever heard him sing it. There was something really touching about this particular version of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ It’s different form other times that we did it. It’s hauntingly sad and beautiful.”
Of course, that song, and many Band classics, were sung by Levon Helm, who passed away last year, and who Robertson had a difficult relationship with after the demise of the Band. Helm’s struggles are well documented, including his battle with cancer that nearly took his singing voice, and his financial woes that nearly led to him being evicted from his home in Woodstock, New York. However, towards the end of his life, his Midnight Rambles, held at his home, became hugely popular, and he toured to larger audiences than he had in decades.
While Robertson wasn’t in touch with his former bandmate at the time, he was happy for his success: “I was glad to see anything good happen to Levon. I felt that, over the years, a bitterness had consumed him, and he thought that he deserved something that he wasn’t getting in life. And this bitterness was kind of eating him up from the inside, and it was tremendously sad for me to see his journey turn so dark. When he was doing his midnight rambles, and good things were happening for him, I thought that was wonderful. I always loved Levon, I thought he was one of the most remarkable musicians. I only wanted good stuff for him. I thought if he had some success he would just feel better in life, and [I was glad] that he did get some of that.”
Robertson spoke about Helm from the stage at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012. “The next day, I went to New York and went straight to the hospital and sat with him. He wasn’t really conscious. (But) I was able to sit there and hold his hand, and think about all the good stuff we experienced together.”
Over the summer, Bob Dylan toured with Wilco and My Morning Jacket, and was often joined by those band’s singers – Jeff Tweedy and Jim James, respectively – for a rendition of the Band’s classic “The Weight.” (Read more: Live: Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket Bring ‘Americanarama Tour’ To New Jersey’s Pier A). Which brought home the point of the Band’s timelessness: Dylan was, of course, a seminal figure in their early career, and Wilco and My Morning Jacket carry on their influence.
Returning to the subject of timelessness, he says, “I didn’t like the idea that we would do something and you’d listen to it a few years later and think ‘Oh, that’s not as good as I thought it was.’ It’s a real compliment to be able to inspire young people and musicians. Wilco and My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons and Kings Of Leon… it comes up all the time that these guys were influenced by, moved by, inspired by us. I think it’s one of the greatest compliments of all. That’s pretty great, dont you think?”
– Brian Ives, Radio.com