Robbie Robertson (Geffen ’87) Rating: B+
I hadn’t heard from the old coot since The Last Waltz 11 long years ago, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this first solo album from the former main songwriter and guitarist in The Band. And lo and behold, it’s certainly nothing like his former group, as Manu Katche’s funky worldbeat percussion and Daniel Lanois’ typically textured and atmospheric production immediately lets us know. Robbie’s not a great singer, that much is obvious; there's a reason that The Band had three singers and he wasn't one of them. However, his thin, smoky voice fits his music, and he’s enlisted plenty of support, with notables such as Peter Gabriel, U2, Maria McKee, and BoDeans lending lots of help. It’s still Robbie’s show, though, and his storytelling skills haven’t been diminished by the years. Robbie immediately runs the gamut of emotions, beginning the album with an ethereal tribute to former bandmate Richard Manuel (“Fallen Angel,” a duet with Gabriel that would've fit just fine on So) before describing a revolutionary battle on the quite singable and harder rocking “Showdown At Big Sky” and then penning a pretty ballad (“Broken Arrow”). Elsewhere, U2 dominates the intense rocker “Sweet Fire Of Love,” which is enjoyable but a bit on the melodramatic side and probably wouldn't have been more than a b-side had U2 released it at that time (remember this was during their Joshua Tree heyday), while “American Roulette” features James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe and is very guitar heavy. So is "Hell's Half Acre," which is solid but is the album's weakest track since Robbie's vocals are rather annoying here. “Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight” has another nice mid-tempo melody with some choice guitar licks, and "Testimony" ends the album with another U2 appearance. This song is far from your typical U2 (or Robbie Robertson) fare, however; for one thing Bono only sings backing vocals, albeit quite prominently, and the song is most notable for its big funky beats, catchy chants, and punchy horns. The album's best song is probably “Somewhere Down The Crazy River,” which sees Robertson in evocative storyteller mode and contains a memorable chorus. Still, this is a very consistent album that rarely rises too high or falls too low. Perhaps the sound is a bit slick and dated at times, such as the synths on (the still mighty fine) "Broken Arrow," and certainly nothing here is as groundbreaking or as innovative as his best work with The Band. Then again, this can almost be viewed as a recording by a brand new artist, since Robbie Robertson owes very little to Robertson’s past successes and instead gets by on its own updated merits. As such, this album was a rewarding reinvention that receives my recommendation.