In Robbie Robertson’s music, earthiness and mystery were never far apart.
Robertson, who died on Wednesday at 80, wrote songs that were firmly and widely rooted. Although he was Canadian, his music was steeped in Americana: in blues, country, ragtime, Cajun music, parlor songs, Appalachian ballads, gospel, circus bands, vaudeville and his Indigenous heritage. The way he deployed his guitar was twangy, sly and rigorously pithy, allowing no wasted motion. The lyrics he wrote could be cryptic or narrative, character studies or tall tales or riddles, and they were informed by history, myth and paradox.
Particularly in the luminous years of the Band’s recording career — from 1968 to 1976, but forged by a full decade of playing together before that — Robertson shaped an ensemble sound that was down-home and communal but laced with thoughtful details. In a late-1960s pop moment of florid psychedelia and sprawling, be-here-now jams, the Band was a counterweight: measured, grown-up and fully aware of a long past.
The Band’s arrangements evoked bygone eras but weren’t limited by them. Robertson’s pointed guitar licks teased against Garth Hudson’s ornate keyboards; vocal harmonies tumbled in from odd directions, and little musical nooks and crannies hinted at secrets just out of reach. With Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel all in the Band, Robertson didn’t need to be a lead singer.
After the Band’s decisive farewell in 1976, Robertson depended on his own limited voice — often bolstered by guest singers — and he worked with studio groups that hadn’t built the road-tested reflexes of the Band. But he continued to write songs steeped in American lore, very much including his own embrace of his Native American ancestry. Earnestness had fully replaced the Band’s jovial camaraderie, but Robertson’s ambitions were undiminished.
Here are 16 essential Robertson recordings:
Bob Dylan and the Hawks, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1966)
Some of Bob Dylan’s British fans were still outraged that he’d gone electric when he toured in 1966; he was backed by the Hawks, a precursor of the Band. Their response to folkie resistance was to dig in and turn up the volume, in performances that still ring with jubilant defiance. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” from “Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert,” was actually recorded in Manchester at a show that was bootlegged and mislabeled for years. The tempo is louche and unhurried, and Robertson and Hudson use the spaces between Dylan’s taunting lines to carry on a merry country-vs.-calliope wrangle.
The Band, “Yazoo Street Scandal” (1967)
“Yazoo Street Scandal” appears on the 1975 collection “The Basement Tapes”: songs recorded in 1967 in Woodstock and Saugerties, N.Y., by Dylan and the Band while he was in seclusion after his 1966 motorcycle accident. “Yazoo Street Scandal” is the Band on its own, with a wiry, stop-time riff and Helm yowling lyrics that juggle bawdiness and biblical allusions.
The Band, “The Weight” (1968)
A fable of callous indifference. A series of setups and punchlines. Some scattered biblical allusions. A stolid march and a potential hymn. “The Weight” is all of those, droll and haggard at the same time, paced by Helm’s laconic drum thumps. Helm and Danko trade verses, and group harmonies stack up in a rising, hopeful chorus before the narrator realizes, once again, “They put the load right on me.”
The Band, “Chest Fever” (1968)
Robertson’s cackling guitar counters the pomp of Garth Hudson’s organ intro and the hefty chords in the verses. Richard Manuel sings about a tantalizing, bewildering woman. In the chorus, as “my mind unweaves/I feel the freeze down in my knees,” organ, piano and guitar capture the vertigo in woozy stereo syncopation, topped by groaning lead guitar licks that insist on comedy.
The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969)
Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” based on the Southern memories of Helm, the only American in a band with four Canadians. The song captures wounded pride, multigenerational loyalties and lingering bitterness in a mournful processional. Helm’s swelling, extended drum rolls hint at military funerals, and after each chorus, there’s a solemn pause, as if facing the next verse is almost too much to bear.
The Band, “Up on Cripple Creek” (1969)
A happy trucker narrates “Up on Cripple Creek,” praising Bessie, his free-spirited hookup in Lake Charles, La. “If I spring a leak, she mends me/I don’t have to speak, she defends me,” Helm exults. A ratchety groove grows out of Robertson’s opening guitar licks, and before the end, Helm is yodeling with glee.
The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (1969)
In “King Harvest,” a farmer faces calamities — drought, fire, a horse gone mad — and finds his last hope in joining a union, as sharecroppers did during the Depression. His rising desperation comes through as Manuel sings the verses, and in the subdued choruses, his love of the land endures.
The Band, “The Shape I’m In” (1970)
The beat is peppy, almost eager, and Hudson’s note-bending organ interludes and outro are downright jaunty. But Manuel sings about a mounting collection of woes: loneliness, jail, homelessness. Robertson’s guitar provides brief hints of the blues, but this narrator is just going to have to muddle through.
The Band, “Stage Fright” (1970)
Performing in the spotlight is “Just one more nightmare you can stand” in “Stage Fright,” a reflection on trauma and fame that may have been autobiographical. “For the price that the poor boy has paid/He gets to sing just like a bird,” Danko sang with a quaver, leaping into falsetto for a few notes after “bird.” The music pushes the fearful singer onstage and the song understands the compulsion to perform despite it all: “When he gets to the end, he wants to start all over again.”
The Band, “Life Is a Carnival” (1971)
Robertson worked at carnivals as a young man, and he remained fascinated by a traveling carnival’s perpetual mix of fun and sleaze; after the Band broke up, he co-wrote and acted in a 1980 movie, “Carny.” He and the Band came up with a staggered, prismatic funk for “Life Is a Carnival.” Amid cheerfully cynical lyrics — “Hey buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap?” — and a syncopated horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint, Robertson lets loose some of his most aggressive lead guitar.
The Band, “Acadian Driftwood” (1975)
Robertson turned to Canadian history in “Acadian Driftwood,” writing about the British deportation of Acadians from eastern Canada in the mid-18th century; some ended up in Louisiana, where Acadians became Cajuns, although the narrator sings, “I got winter in my blood.” Between verses, Cajun fiddle trades off with what sounds like British fife (actually Hudson on piccolo), nodding to history.
The Band, “It Makes No Difference” (1976)
The heartache is palpable in “The Last Waltz” version of “It Makes No Difference,” a straightforward soul ballad that brought out a riveting Danko vocal: quivering, aching, almost sobbing, as he sings about a sunless world of unbearable hurt and sorrow after a breakup. But he has his pride: “It’s all I can do just to keep myself from telling you/I never felt so alone before,” he confesses.
Robbie Robertson, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” (1987)
Robertson narrates the verses with a knowing growl in the noirish “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” He piles up archetypes — “a jukebox coming from up the levee,” “Madame X,” “a ’59 Chevy,” “a blue train” — over sleek, echoey 1980s funk.
Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble, “Ghost Dance” (1994)
Robertson provided soundtrack music for a 1994 mini-series, “The Native Americans,” striving to mesh contemporary pop with Native American tradition. “Ghost Dance” mixes Native American-style drums, flutes and chanting with a stoic march of remembrance and perseverance: “They outlawed the ghost dance/But we shall live again,” he vows.
Robbie Robertson, “Unbound” (1998)
Robertson embraced electronica on his 1998 album, “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy.” In “Unbound,” he’s enveloped by sustained synthesizer chords and looping percussion as he sings about irresistible desire. The wordless vocals of Caroline McKendrick draw him like a siren song.
Robbie Robertson, “Once Were Brothers” (2019)
In “Once Were Brothers,” a stately march with touches of harmonica, Robertson mourns the estrangement of comrades: “We lost a connection after the war,” he sings. “There’ll be no revival/There’ll be no encore.” Could he have been thinking of bandmates?
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. More about Jon Pareles
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