Robbie Robertson, “The Lights” from Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (1998): Across the Great Divide

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Even as Robbie Robertson delved deeper into his own native roots on 1998’s techno-spiritual Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, he continued to move still further afield from his own past in the Band. Gone are the plucky front-porch cadences that gave rise to the modern Americana movement. Instead, there were moody atmospheric textures, trip-hop settings, the pulsing insistence of electronica.

In fact, there might not be a Robbie Robertson album — hell, any album from its former members — less in keeping with turn-of-the-1970s triumphs like Music from Big Pink and The Band, at least on its surface. Dig deeper, though, past the very modern touches from next-gen producers like Marius de Vries and Howie B, and Robertson’s way with a narrative remained. Combined with latter-day influence Martin Scorsese’s flair for the cinematic, Robertson was able to do that rarest of things here — update a legend.

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Songs like “The Lights” could only come from this songwriter, in this moment. The always-curious Robbie Robertson, who spent the days leading up to completing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” picking Levon Helm’s brain or else with his nose in a library book, doesn’t approach these topics from a comfy nostalgic place. Instead, as with the justifiably iconic “Dixie Down,” he blends a passion for the past with a conception that’s entirely new.

Robertson’s moltenly precise guitar work tends to define the more uptempo moments on Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, whereas his humming, contemplative “The Lights” focuses more on the lyrics — and on Robertson’s resonant whisper. It’s not a voice that could have carried most Band songs (and, really, there was no need to), but it fits moments of dark portant like this one — which finds Robertson tracing the thin line between the old ways and a new era of First Nations obsolescence.

As strange as it sounds, as backwards chronologically, it actually begins to make perfect sense. Whatever his hopes for Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, and whatever his lineage, Robbie Robertson couldn’t possibly have known (much less recreated) the indiginous sounds of his ancestors. Instead, he connected with their story, and with their spirit, in the only way he knew how — as someone living in this time, in this age. That’s what gives “The Lights” such power. It never sounds old, and it never grows old, either.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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