Robbie Robertson + Rick Danko, “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” from Robbie Robertson (1987): Across the Great Divide

This song is a canny mixture of Robbie Robertson’s patented myth-making fables and the then-new aural soundscapes — from Manu Katche’s polyrhythms to Tony Levin’s limber bass accompaniment — with which producer Daniel Lanois was making his name. In that way, it utterly succeeded in ways that the occasionally too-high concept Robbie Robertson elsewhere simply couldn’t.

If, until this moment, Robertson’s oldest fans were feeling a little unmoored, all was forgiven with the sudden appearance of Rick Danko, Robertson’s long-time collaborator in the Band. He arrives just in time for the chorus, and “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” — a final moment of quiet resonance on Robertson’s long-awaited self-titled solo debut — soars to a different emotional place.

After all, when Danko sings about fires dying, about tears that are indistinguishable from the rain, it’s with the stoic posture of a thousand nights of heartbreak. Finding some measure of strength through desperately fragile times was always Rick’s strength, and he’s perfectly cast by Robertson here once again. Together, they imbue Robbie Robertson with a final darkly intriguing triumph before U2 rejoins the proceedings for “Testimony,” the album’s riff-focused closing anthem.

That said, it’s those other things — the flashes of a surprisingly exotic cadence, the twilit spaciousness inside the keyboards as “Sonny” comes out of its middle eight, even the idea of U2 being around — that have come to define Robbie Robertson more than a quarter century later. Obvious connections back to his earlier work were sometimes difficult to find, and that only gives a next-gen take on the Band aesthetic like “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” more cache.

“It wasn’t that I was trying to make a record that did not sound like the Band,” Robertson once explained. “I was just doing what I did then. It’s not like nothing had happened over that period of time. Just pickin’ and singin’ and ‘You play a little riff and then this chorus,’ that wasn’t appealing to me anymore. I was looking for these bursts of emotions and colors and things to complement the music, and more exotic rhythms, and more drama in the music. I’m very curious, and I am game.”

And so “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” remains perhaps the track that’s most directly connective to the Band — more so even than Robertson’s earlier tribute to Richard Manuel. Danko’s turn on “Sonny” may have confirmed the notion but, in truth, that would have emerged from its lyrical mysticisms anyway. There exists a small-scale dilation of Robertson’s gifts here that was missing in more grandiose statements like “American Roulette” — to say nothing of the other U2 collaboration “Sweet Fire of Love,” which (as with “Fallen Angel,” featuring fellow Lanois client Peter Gabriel) finds Robertson’s guest stars threatening to hijack his album.

“Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight” might be best described, then, as an example of the forward-thinking album that Robertson could have made, if he and Lanois hadn’t invited so many new friends over. It points the way, in one memorable burst, to a new kind of Robbie Robertson song — one that’s comfortably like, but also thrillingly unlike, everything that came before.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso