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It was exciting news that Robbie Robertson was scheduled to perform on August 20 at Boulder's Fox Theatre as part of a showcase tied into the Gavin A3 Summit, an annual radio conference sponsored by Gavin, a powerful music-industry tip sheet. After all, Robertson is one of the most important figures in rock history, thanks in large part to his work with Bob Dylan and the Band, yet he plays live about as often as Rush Limbaugh gladhands Ted Kennedy. But several weeks after Robertson's appearance was announced, he abruptly canceled it (Bonnie Raitt now headlines the show in his place). He says scheduling conflicts were the main culprits; a number of musicians with whom he's been collaborating were unavailable to join him. "And this is not pickin' and a-singin' kind of music, you know," he says about the complex, multi-layered sound of his latest disc, Contact From the Underworld of Redboy. "You can't just go, 'Okay, we'll do this acoustic.' It is what it is."
That said, Robertson isn't exactly boo-hooing over his inability to showcase at a convention. He's eager to promote both Redboy and Making a Noise: A Native American Spiritual Musical Journey, a documentary about Robertson's rediscovery of his cultural background that's beginning to air on PBS stations across the country. (The program can be seen on KRMA-TV/ Channel 6 on Tuesday, September 1, at 7 p.m. It debuted on KBDI-TV/Channel 12 on August 15 and will likely be repeated.) However, the prospect of traveling across the country to rock the house no longer holds much romance for him.
"Years ago with the Band, I made a movie and a statement about giving up the road called The Last Waltz," he notes, referring to a 1978 flick (directed by Martin Scorsese) that's widely considered one of the greatest rock films ever made. "And when I did that, I wasn't really kidding. I thought, I've been doing this since I was a young kid. I was on the road with these guys for sixteen years as the Hawks and then the Band. And it was like, I'm not growing from this. It's just a business. You go out, you play, you collect money, you go to the next place, and you collect money. And I really had a feeling, and this is way back when, that all of this about connecting with the people--I mean, do you think the Rolling Stones are connecting with the people? And do you think the Eagles got back together again because of the music? Horseshit. It's all about money. And I thought, I don't want to go around from town to town taking money unless I'm passionate about what I'm doing.
"I don't know, maybe some people, like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, just love it and want to do it forever. But for me, it got to where I thought that if I'm not learning something from this, if I'm not drawn to this thing, if this is really only about my pocketbook, then I shouldn't do it. For me, the thing that I'm really passionate about is taking something out of the air that didn't exist and making it exist musically. That appeals to me. It makes me feel a sense of something a lot more than somebody writing me a check."
Statements like this one tend to stir up suspicion: Even artists actively looking for the next opportunity to sell out tend to make them. But such declarations mean much more coming from Robertson. Born Jaime Robbie Robertson in Canada 55 years ago, he was raised mainly in Toronto, but between 1954 and 1957 he spent his summers at the Six Nations Reservation, where his mother, of Mohawk descent, was raised. He learned to play guitar at Six Nations, and by the late Fifties, he was playing in bands such as Robbie & the Robots and Thumper & the Trambones. Shortly thereafter he joined the Hawks, a group that backed up rockabilly vocalist Ronnie Hawkins. That association ended in 1963, but Robertson and fellow Hawks Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson stuck together, and two years later the players came into the orbit of Dylan just as he was entering one of his most fruitful creative periods.
After Robertson contributed to Dylan's 1966 opus Blonde on Blonde, he and the Hawks supported the singer throughout a lengthy international tour that thrilled the rock faithful every bit as much as it distressed folk purists who saw Dylan's decision to electrify his sound as apostasy. Upon the junket's conclusion (and following a reported motorcycle accident), Dylan regathered the Hawks for a series of recordings made in a pink house located in West Saugerties, New York. The songs weren't meant for release, but bootleggers had other ideas. They circulated so many copies of the rich and wonderful tunes that bubbled forth from these sessions that Dylan's label, Columbia, eventually put out a portion of them in 1975 under the title The Basement Tapes. As indicated by the publication last year of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, a tribute book by journalist Greil Marcus, reverence for the tracks has not faded with the passage of time.