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* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : ROBERTSON'S ARTFUL EDGE

October 25, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

* * * 1/2 ROBBIE ROBERTSON. "Robbie Robertson." Geffen.

As chief architect of the Band, songwriter-guitarist Robertson made some of the most distinguished and affecting music of the late '60s and early '70s--music that explored elements of the American character against a backdrop of country, folk and blues influences as timeless and majestic as a redwood forest.

Now Robertson, who said goodby to the Band and rock in the 1976 "Last Waltz" concert, kicks off his first solo album with a song that is so eloquently crafted and heartwarmingly personal that it recalls the best moments of his old group. "Fallen Angel," co-written by Robertson and Martin Page, is a wistful and passionate reflection on the loss of a friend. The number is all the more moving because it is about Richard Manuel, the Band pianist who killed himself in 1986.

Because "Fallen Angel" features Peter Gabriel on backing vocal and the whole album was co-produced by Robertson and Daniel Lanois (who worked with Gabriel on "So"), it is inevitable perhaps that the track's arrangement offers much the same blend of arty sophistication and spiritual beauty found in Gabriel's recent work.

The music on another key selection, "Sweet Fire of Love," was co-written and performed with Robertson by U2, and it could fit easily on U2's "The Joshua Tree." But Robertson has plenty of time elsewhere in the album to assert his own identity--both in songs like "Showdown at Big Sky," which is the closest to a reprise of the old Band sound, and in the more experimental "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," the kind of musical short story you might expect from a Delta-based Tom Waits.

"American Roulette," a stinging look at the destructiveness of mega-fame, focuses on pop heroes like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and showcases a tough, almost mainstream side of the rock veteran.

If his songwriting and production skills are nicely showcased in the album, however, Robertson's singing at times fails to inject the songs (particularly weaker tunes like "Hell's Half Acre") with sufficient power and command.

Still, there is an artful, inspiring edge and a deeply rooted sense of musical vision that makes this rock's most triumphant return to form since John Fogerty reclaimed his rightful place in "Centerfield." Robertson vowed he wouldn't make another album until he had something to say, and this examination of the human spirit in no way betrays that pledge.

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