Rock guitarist Robbie Robertson at the Village Recording Studio. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
There's a track on Robbie Robertson's new album, "How to Become Clairvoyant," that's destined to generate buzz among guitar aficionados, not just for the sincerity with which Robertson pays homage to a litany of the instrument's great practitioners but for the company the celebrated musician chose to help out on it.
That song, "The Axman," name-checks many who are no longer living, and one who remains: Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker, Link Wray, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elmore James and three Kings of the blues — Albert, Freddie and B.B. — casting the Axman's place in the world in near-mythological terms:
"He came across the border / With a hatchet in his hand / They said 'Who's that stranger? / The one they call the Axman?'" Robertson sings in a spectral whisper. A lot of music fans and critics would say that Robertson's own name belongs up there with those others in the guitar-hero pantheon for his tasteful, inventive work over a couple of decades with the Band and on his infrequent solo records.
So who did he tap to join him on this musical salute? Not longtime friend Eric Clapton, although the musician nicknamed Slowhand is present on seven other of the album's tracks and was the main catalyst for getting Robertson to break his 10-year hiatus as a recording artist. Instead, Robertson drafted Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a musician who at first glance is in another world from the blues, jazz and roots-rock stylists "The Axman" celebrates.
"It was great to think of writing something to pay homage to all these great guitar slingers that aren't with us anymore," Robertson, 67, said in the upstairs studio he's used for years at a busy West L.A. recording complex. "They inspire us so much and will forever, so I just thought that was a prayer worth saying." He spoke in a deep and woody baritone that contrasts with the sandpapery sung-spoken tones he usually uses when singing. "Then to think: Of all the people around, who would I like to play the part of the Axman with?
"I ended up wanting to work with Tom Morello and Robert Randolph [the sacred-steel guitar wiz who plays elsewhere on the album] because I have no understanding of what they're doing. And I should know — I've been playing guitar for a while now," he said nonchalantly of the career he's carved out since he started playing professionally at 16.
For Morello, it was a chance to play with someone who wasn't so much a childhood hero but a musician he came to know and admire through films and videos of the Band and then direct exposure to Robertson's solo works. "He was on my radar as a guy who stood up for just causes, and a fine guitar player with an amazing history," Morello said in a separate interview. "Watching those videos, you get the impression — certainly with Robbie — that you're watching rock 'n' roll being created.... They were creating the template we would later recognize as rock and roll, and he's one of the people who's got one hand on the wheel."
Added Robertson: "I can stand in front of Tom Morello … or Robert Randolph and it's completely mysterious to me what they're doing. And I love the fact that I don't get it. So that's what I reach for. That's my instincts."
Those instincts have taken him into deeply autobiographical territory on "How to Become Clairvoyant," in which he draws on various facets of a lifetime worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him and his cohorts in the Band — Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — in 1994.
It opens with "Straight Down the Line," a tour on which he lets listeners follow him geographically "From the Chitlin' Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge," on his journey as a young musician soaking up the blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll. "When the Night Was Young" reflects on the 1960s, about which he sings, "We had dreams when the night was young… We could change the world, stop the war / Never seen nothing like this before."
"There was a really powerful unity in the youth of the nation, and they could make stuff happen. And music was the voice of that generation," he said. "I miss that now. That's the sadness you hear [in that song] — just missing something that really was so valuable and worked and did make a difference."
"She's Not Mine" is a haunting treatise on the elusiveness of love, while "This I Where I Get Off" addresses more directly than anything he's written his feelings about giving up touring, a chapter in life that was capped with the 1976 all-star concert "The Last Waltz," which his friend, director Martin Scorsese, captured on film.
Rock over ages
What made him go there at this juncture in his life, 31/2 decades after the Band packed it in?