Divide and conquer

Robbie Robertson throws history into the bonfire

Robertson's solo albums would never recapture the giddy release found on The Band's earliest records, but that was because Robertson had had enough of writing rock and roll. His 1991 Storyville, an homage to New Orleans, lacked Crescent City swing, but had a certain humid appeal; it sweated in a different kind of way. In 1994, he collaborated with the Red Road Ensemble to provide the music to Music For "Native Americans," a TBS-aired documentary, which put Robertson back in touch with the music of his youth and would lead to the eventual, inevitable Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. It's doubtful he will ever make another record using just bass and guitars and drums and vocals. That would be stepping backward, toward a sound too familiar, too comfortable. Instead, he will spend a few months remixing Contact into dance-floor B-sides and riding the wave until it crashes into something else.

Contact is, as Anthony DeCurtis noted recently in Rolling Stone, a "personal journey," music fashioned from knickknacks and artifacts Robertson gathered as he traveled from the reservation to Arkansas and back again. With its screaming, "fuck-you" guitars (as Robertson calls it) and its whispered drumbeats and its myriad guest vocals (from Rita Coolidge to Chief Jake Thomas to a pair of Inuit throat singers), Contact is the product of one man's fanaticism with history and his fetishism for technology. It's no more a history lesson than The Band's albums, no less one artist's giant step toward making tangible the stuff of vague dreams and clouded memory. In the end, Robertson has created a record for him and no one else, proof that you can go home again, if only to rebuild the old neighborhood.

"We all have this dance we must do," Robertson says. "I felt awhile back a longing for the dance, and I first took it out in literature, reading a lot of Native American stories. I immersed myself in Native literature, and that was fulfilling a certain part of watching the dance. But then you think, 'I don't want to watch, I want to dance myself.'

"With this project, I'm trying to stay in the moment, be kind of respectful. This has more to do with than just me. It has to do with the culture and a lot of other people involved, and I'm just enjoying the feeling I have right now. I refuse to talk to anyone about any other projects and think about what's around the bend. I don't want to think like that right now. This is my way of participating in the dance, being part of the ceremony of life.

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