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Robbie Robertson: From the Band's live classic to a child's guide to music


By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Robbie Robertson isn't exactly known for being prolific. In the almost 37 years since "The Last Waltz" marked his finale with the Band, he has released only five solo albums (most recently 2011's "How to Become Clairvoyant") while concentrating mostly on film scores and soundtracks, often working alongside his friend Martin Scorsese. But this fall will see Robertson busy launching several projects over the space of a few weeks, most notably a greatly expanded edition of the classic 1972 live Band album "Rock of Ages," which has been taken from a double-LP up to four CDs plus a DVD, including 19 previously unreleased tracks, and is now titled "Live at the Academy of Music 1971."

"I felt so proud in this period," says Robertson, who was the primary songwriter and guitarist for the Band, of the four historic shows documented on the set, which saw the group augmented with horns arranged by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and culminated in a New Year's Eve blowout featuring four songs with the reclusive Bob Dylan. "The pieces were just fitting into the puzzle so well — it wasn't like 'Let's get it while we can,' but it felt like this was a moment we had to capture."

On Oct. 8, a few weeks after the box set comes out, Robertson is putting out a children's book titled "Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World," which tells the stories of 27 immortals, from Billie Holiday to Bob Marley to the Beach Boys. Years in the making, the book was co-written by Robertson with his son Sebastian and artist managers Jim Guerinot and Jared Levine, and comes with two CDs (or downloads) of songs from all of the artists who are included in the pages (a huge licensing challenge when it comes to figures like the Beatles).

"I'm excited because people are excited about this book," he says. "A live record of the Band, that's easy, but the book is new and comes out of nowhere, so that's just great."

Bing:Robbie Robertson | The Band

In addition, there's more new music from the Band as part of Dylan's recently released "Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Volume 10," which includes the complete performance from England's 1969 Isle of Wight festival, his first full concert appearance after his 1966 motorcycle accident.

Robertson, 70, maintains that overseeing the Band's catalogue following the deaths of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm (Garth Hudson is the only other surviving member) carries with it a responsibility equal to the one he felt as part of the group during its years as one of the most influential rock acts of all time. "It's really the same place it's always been for me," he says. "A feeling of so much appreciation and respect for what these guys did, and trying to make that shine as much as I can — the same way I would try to write songs that they could sing the hell out of or play the hell out of."

MSN Music: Was revisiting "Rock of Ages" something you wanted to do for a long time, or was this just an opportunity that came up?

Robbie Robertson: It was something that was stuck in the back of my mind for ages. When we did the concerts, with Phil Ramone engineering, the experience of the recording was completely enlightening, just extraordinary. But when Phil and I went in to mix it, we ran into a real technical problem. We had to remix it and get it right, but Phil had to go into another project and wasn't able to finish, so we did the best we could under the circumstances.

In all these years, I never got the opportunity to do what should be done, and pay respect to this music the way I felt about it. So now I could really dig in, and it was tremendously fulfilling to me. Now I feel like I can sleep at night.

Video: Robbie Robertson on the Band's legendary 1971 New Year's Eve performance

In retrospect, these shows came at a pivotal moment in the Band's history, a peak before things started taking a downturn. Were you aware of that at the time?

In any band's journey, there's always hills and valleys, and we were starting to see too many valleys. But at this time, we were really enjoying each other. Richard Manuel was just singing his heart out. Garth would play things that had never been expressed in music before, so magical. On some nights Levon would sing and I would think, "That's as good as anybody in the world can do that" — it just blew my mind. And Rick Danko's voice had really built up and was so powerful by this point. Plus, he was singing and playing fretless bass, which was phenomenal, so hard to do, and he just nailed it. It was really kind of an all-star feeling, still playing with these same guys and just loving what all of them were doing.

Bob Dylan wasn't exactly active in public at the time, but it sounds like convincing him to join you onstage was a pretty casual conversation

A lot went into what we were going to do at these shows: getting used to the horns and fine-tuning those relationships with Allen and those guys, and everybody got to that place. But with Bob, there was very little acknowledgment until it was actually happening. I asked him if he wanted to come join us on New Year's Eve, he said, "Sounds good," and we never discussed what we were going to play. But we had played together so much over the years — in the basement, on stages — that we were already sharp.

I can hear that we were just winging it. We didn't have time to rehearse, and we didn't need it. It was just completely based in the deep musical relationship we had. And I can hear us having a really good time.

Meantime, there's another live Band performance just out: Bob's 1969 Isle of Wight show is included in his new "Bootleg Series" set. What are your thoughts about that show?

I don't remember that very well. I remember that when we were there playing, it wasn't very well put together, we couldn't hear anything. It was hard to do our best work, because it was technically a mess. We just rambled through it, and I haven't heard it since. I hope it's OK — I'm sure it's OK in some way, I just don't know.

With this one done, is there anything else in the Band vaults you want to revisit?

There's other live stuff that's never been heard before, and a lot of footage no one has seen. I would love to be able to put together a whole different kind of package with the live stuff, because it's really just gathering dust.

So how did the idea for the book come about?

The germ came from Sebastian, who was working at this place where parents would bring their kids to play. And he came to the conclusion that kids music was cute and fun and all that, but when he would put on a really great record, as much to entertain himself, the vibe in the room completely changed. You could feel the kids recognize something really good, in their soul — if he put on a Curtis Mayfield song, they would start moving and laughing, there was a magic in the air.

So he came to me and said that somebody should really put together some great music for kids. It's probably been six years since we started talking about it, and four years of really working to get it to what we heard in our imagination. Clearing these songs was just impossible, but we climbed that mountain until we got to the top, and we got everybody we wanted. That's a feat we were very proud of.

More: The Band's Robbie Robertson fixes music 'mistakes'

What's your hope or ambition for the project?

We need to cement a foundation, to talk about the artists that influenced other artists to such a degree that it really is the music that changed the world. The idea is that a kid, with the involvement of parents and family, grows up knowing about these artists, and then they're set. This will lead them to all of those good places they need to go. If they know about Billie Holiday, or that without Louis Jordan there would be no Chuck Berry, that lays a foundation for taste, and the knowledge that everything came from somewhere.

Ultimately, do you see a connection between this book and your work with the Band?

The Band is the epitome of carrying all of these musicalities, hopefully some of the best of it, to a culmination. We were together for seven years before we made "Music From Big Pink," and we traveled and woodshedded and gathered music, and by the time we were recording, you could hear all that: The influence of gospel and blues and country and R&B and everything, it's all in that big notebook called the Band. So it was natural to go from that to a book like this, because that's who we were.

Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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