Divide and conquer

Robbie Robertson throws history into the bonfire

His earliest memories are of childhood days spent on the reservation, listening to his mother's relatives tell stories, play music, pass down traditions as though they were a child's outgrown clothes. He was born in May 1944, the son of a Mohawk mother and a Jewish gangster. He would never know his father; the man known as Klagerman was shot down long before the son was old enough to remember him, though Robbie would always think of himself as a half-breed--enough, anyway, to write a song about it when he was in his 40s.

And so it was left to his mother's people to raise him during summers and other days spent away from his native Toronto, where he and Mom lived. On the Six Nations Reservation near the Canada-U.S. border, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, Robbie grew up listening to the beating of tom-toms, the blowing of flutes, the chanting of ancient hymns. They provided the soundtrack to his childhood, the inextricable memories that stayed with a little boy until they came back to haunt a middle-aged man.

For years, Robbie Robertson had nothing to do with that music: As the chief songwriter and guitarist for the world's greatest rock and roll group--The Band, and never was one more simply, aptly named--he wrote music so oddly contrary to those early sounds. He penned songs about Civil War soldiers and survivors; he wrote about train engineers, sharecroppers, and other lost Americans trying to survive life on the Great Divide. It all seemed so diametric to his upbringing: an Indian boy eulogizing Civil War soldiers, celebrating a past that was anything but kind to his own people.

Perhaps that's why his brand-new record Contact From the Underworld of Redboy--a stirring, evocative album that kick-starts primordial melodies into a techno-ambient present--is the thing that is, for now, closest to his heart. He speaks only about the record during an hour on the phone--about how it represents to him a reconnection with his childhood past, how it stirs in him a feeling he didn't even know he had, how it brings close all the things he thought he had long since abandoned. If his records with The Band were modern American masterpieces (made by a gang of Canadians, no less, and their Arkansas ally), then Contact is the sound of a child returned home a wiser, wearier old man.

"I don't know if [my career] has a logical flow, but I remember as a kid hearing the stories from the older folks talking a lot about the Circle," he says. "I remember hearing this thing, like, The sun's a circle, the moon's a circle, the earth's a circle, your soul's a circle, everything in this life happens in a circle, and from where you start out, you can go all the way around the mountain, but you will come back to where it all started. And I was like, 'Whatever--circle, schmircle.' But eventually, I found myself right back where I started, not only in my life but in my music, and so I thought maybe this is just the way it works. I don't even know what makes the path go in that direction. You have some control over it, but some of it has direction of its own. I don't like to get too heady about the destiny quest, but some of it's true."

Contact From the Underworld of Redboy is an odd, hypnotic record that sounds less like a tangible collection of songs and more like a seamless swell of dreams. It begins with the sampled chant of a Pauite Nation girl, recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942, layered between beats and keyboard atmospherics; and it ends with Robertson whispering about what happens "just on the outskirts of civilization," waiting for friendly visitors from outer space. In between, he seems to visit every aspect of his Indian past, celebrating the dance, peyote ceremonies, ancient spirits; he even samples his myriad phone conversations with activist Leonard Peltier, jailed since 1976 for his alleged, and long-disputed, involvement in the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Contact is the most intriguing of Robertson's four solo records since The Band's dissolution in 1976--a dance record, first and foremost, produced by the likes of Howie B (who has worked with Tricky and U2) and Marius de Vries (Bjsrk, Massive Attack). After two decades of crafting the best kinds of roots music with The Band, fashioning rock out of mandolins and organs and other archaic tools, Robertson took a long leap off a high cliff and decided the best way to honor his ancestors' music and heritage was to light it on fire and turn it into so much ceremonial ash and smoke.

"If I tried to describe to somebody the way I was hearing this record and what I was interested in doing on it, it probably wouldn't make much sense on paper," Robertson says. "But just with my experience and my instincts, I knew what I was doing. As we were making this record, the way that musicalities were together and how things just melted together like butter, it was really exciting. We felt like we were in a discovery process. Making this record, for the most part, was just magical. It has a life of its own."

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