I just posted a blog Wednesday after months without one. And isn’t it just like me that on that very day news broke of the death of two artists I revere. I suddenly felt the need to post three blogs in one day.
I decided against that course of action, though, and today I’m posting a delayed tribute to Robbie Robertson. In the next week, I also plan to have one to long-overlooked Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez.
For his part Robertson was the chief creative force behind The Band, a group that, for my money, is the best rock ‘n’ roll group to have emerged from this side of the Atlantic in the 1960s and possibly ever. (My apologies to The Beach Boys.)
There was something magical in the combo of Canadians Robertson (guitar and backing vocals), Rick Danko (lead and backing vocals, bass), Richard Manual (lead and backing vocals, piano) and Garth Hudson (organ and everything else) along with Arkansas native Levon Helm (lead and backing vocals, drums).
Their musicianship and storytelling songcraft left an indelible mark on rock music as it emerged from the psychedelic era into a more roots-based approach that heavily influenced the emerging singer/songwriters and country-rock bands of the 1970s.
“Music from Big Pink,” their debut released in July 1968, really changed music. Alongside Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” and the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet,” it was a major part of what I feel was a course correction for western popular music.
Central to that storytelling was Robertson, who was always the chief songwriter and creative director of The Band.
I’ll admit that as a fan, I long had conflicting feelings about Robertson. Helm long held him in ill regard, as he felt Robertson took the drummer’s life experiences of growing up in the American South and turned them into songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” while taking all the songwriting credits (and a lifetime of royalties) for himself.
Then again, I wasn’t there. I love Levon, and he’ll always be my favorite member of one of my very favorite bands. But more than any of the other four members, “The Band” doesn’t exist in any recognizable form without Robbie Robertson.
I really came to understand Robertson’s side of things when I watched the documentary “Once Were Brothers” several years ago. In the film, which is admittedly the story through Robertson’s eyes, we learn how much he was the organizing force of the group as well as being the one who ended up having enough when the guys around him (excluding Hudson, I believe) found their lives revolving around their addictions.
It makes Robertson’s desire to settle down from life on the road, which he talks about extensively in “The Last Waltz” (my favorite music film ever), make a lot more sense. He had kids, and he was ready to be done with life on the road. Good for him that he seems to have managed to have done that..
In thinking about what song to use to memorialize Robertson, I knew it had to be a performance from “The Last Waltz.”
But this one didn’t actually make the film or the original version of the soundtrack. It’s a live rendition of “Acadian Driftwood” from that Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert. It’s an epic historical tale originally included on The Band’s 1975 album “Northern Lights – Southern Cross.”
It’s Robertson’s retelling (with some creative license taken) of the forced removal of the Acadians from their homeland they had established in what are now Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and a small part of Quebec in Canada and part of Maine in the United States.
It all happened during what we call the French and Indian War, with the British forcing out the Acadians, who were originally French settlers to the region.. (Imperial British occupation and mistreatment? You don’t say. I am shocked!)
Unlike Robertson’s retelling of Southern history and folklore, this one can’t be attributed to Helm in any way.
I love this song because it features alternating lead vocals from all three of Helm, Manuel and Danko, which is actually a rarity in The Band’s catalogue.
The last verse being in French is also a cool touch.
This version particularly is introduced as “another Canadian song” by Robertson (following on a rendition of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” earlier in the evening) so fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young are invited out to take part.
In the end, it’s just a nice tribute not only to Robertson, but to The Band itself, of which Garth Hudson, the quiet one, is the sole surviving member.
Have a good weekend out there, friends. Love you all.