Friday, 3 June 2011

God, it was too hot to sleep I followed the sound of a jukebox coming from up the levee All of a sudden I could hear somebody whistling

“Somewhere Down the Crazy River”, Robbie Robertson (1988)

Robbie Robertson is a Canadian icon and renowned world-wide for his work in ‘The Band’ having written such treasures as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and many more.

Robertson’s mother was a member of the Mohawk nation and his father was Jewish. He spent his summers at “Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations”. The rest of the year he was arguably in the epi-centre of Canadian music at the time. Toronto, with its folk singers and later burgeoning rock bands of Young Street had its impact also.

Robbie’s first understanding of Arkansas may have come in the form of American Ronnie Hawkins1 who came to Toronto in the late fifties from Arkansas to form his band “The Hawks”. Robertson worked in the Hawks ultimately contributing songs and becoming lead guitar.

When Robertson left the Hawks in 1963 to form ‘The Band’, little did he know how massive the impact of this groundbreaking band would be. Long after "The "Band" Robertson recorded some very different music.

The self-titled album has interesting contributions from U2 and Peter Gabriel, both of which were working with Daniel Lanois and Robertson at the time.  U2 was recording ‘The Joshua Tree” and Peter Gabriel was finishing up recording “So”.

“Robbie Robertson” garnered 2 wards at the Canadian Juno Awards in 1989 (there were no Juno’s in 1988) – “Album of the Year”, and “Producers of the Year” for Robertson and Lanois. The song “Sweet Fire of Love”, and “Testimony” featured vocals by Bono. On the excellent “Broken Arrow”, and “Fallen Angel”, both recorded at Peter’s Ashcombe House in Bath, England, feature Gabriel on the electric piano. “Showdown at Big Sky” is also a great song that the ‘BoDeans’ helped out with backing vocals.

“Somewhere” was Robertson’s only solo hit in the U.K. As the song was being devised  Lanois was secretly recording it as Robbie played around with the ‘Suzuki Omnichord” a toy instrument that Brian Eno had given Lanois. The song is supposed to be about when he was in Arkansas with Levon Helm and the steamy nights there.  Robertson had apparently asked someone directions for someplace somewhere down the crazy river.

Suzuki Omnichord
 I always found the haunting feel, the excellent imagery, and the sultry voodoo sentiment of “Somewhere” alluring. The weird chords of the Omnichord, the  falsetto of Sam Bodean (who I always thought sounded like a girl), and the probable reference to “Little Willy John’s”, 1956 “Fever”, make for an intriguing  mosaic and mysteriously intoxicating brew, which you can smell from the first note played.  

1)       Ronnie Hawkins was born 2 days after Elvis in 1935. He was highly influential in the Canadian music scene in Toronto, and is considered by some to have brought rock and roll to Canada.

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