Looking back on the creative contributions of Robbie Robertson – a true innovator on the six-string. Working with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, later just the Hawks, Bob Dylan (taking part in the memorable boo-filled 1966 tour) and of course The Band, and where he blossomed as a songwriter. His songs captured an American South that transfixed him as a touring teen guitarist with Hawkins. He succeeded in creating an uncanny lyrical atmosphere for Arkansan lead vocalist Levon Helm, the only southerner in The Band with “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Weight.” Rarely singing, Robertson continued as a solo artist most notably composing numerous soundtracks for film maestro Martin Scorcese.
What better way to celebrate Robbie Robertson the craftsman than with a few blasts from my old guitar teacher -Johnny Harper -excerpted from A Bonanza of Great Guitar Solos which appeared on the there1.com site back in 1996.
“Robbie Robertson: Slo Burn (1994? recorded earlier?). Of course Robertson’s widely acclaimed for some of his classic songwriting, and for his songwriter-storyteller role and overall vibe of artistic integrity; and yes, he’s vaguely recognized as a good, tasty lead guitarist too. I’m going to go much further out on a limb in assessing him as a player! It’s my opinion that he stands in a class with Hendrix, and only Hendrix, as the most innovative, diverse, complex, distinctive, and powerful guitar voice of his era. He’s played definitively beautiful solos and color parts in an amazingly wide range of styles and idioms; his timing, as both lead and support player, is fantastic; his uses of open-string and drone techniques, “harmonics” licks, tremolo picking and volume-swell tone effects are utterly personal, imaginative and unique. The different historical periods of his work — with Ronnie Hawkins, with Dylan, several distinct phases with the Band, and his solo and soundtrack work of the last 16 years — are each distinctive and deserve serious examination; yet at this same time his personal voice is unmistakable at every stage. He’s been a rebel and innovator on the instrument right from the start, and continues to break new ground today, as this moody, moaning, instrumental piece from a 1994 film score bears witness. And of course, through all his evolutions and technical innovations, the essence of his playing has always been the pure, searing emotion he wrings from his strings. “Slo Burn,” like all of his best work, fascinates me as a guitarist — but utterly haunts and transports me as a listener.
Robbie Robertson, lead guitar, with The Band: Back to Memphis (1973). It’s become almost a clichÈ of writers discussing the Band, to cite Robertson’s super-spare, dry, crackling solo at the end of the classic “King Harvest” as his all-time guitar masterpiece. Of course I love that solo too, but he’s recorded many equally great ones throughout his career, and I wanted to showcase some other, perhaps less known, sides of his playing, as displayed in this good-time rock’n’roll rave-up number from the Band’s set at Watkins Glen. This song, a 24-bar blues in form, is actually a quite obscure Chuck Berry number, but Robbie plays totally his own bag of tricks here, with very little reference to Chuck’s style. His use of open strings as he moves up the neck (see bars 5-6 of his first chorus; also first 4 bars of chorus 2, etc. etc.) is phenomenal; so is the way he keeps a dramatic high-tonic drone note ringing against his melody line in bars 5-8 of chorus 2; and I laughed out loud at the way he slips that snarly low-string lick (almost a “Suzie Q” quote!) into the final V chord of this break. More on Robertson below.