Robbie Robertson, “Night Parade” from Storyville (1991): Across the Great Divide

Robbie Robertson has, over the years, become something of a curator of things that Americans take for granted. That meant stirring songs about the country’s rich history and its damnable missteps, but also deep dives into its music folkways — from country and R&B to, within the percolating grooves of 1991’s Storyville, that unnameable gumbo of sounds which emanate across the Mississippi River out of New Orleans.

Trips to the Deep South with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks transformed Robbie Robertson as a youngster, adding dimension to an imagination that had originally been sparked by the faint signal of U.S. radio stations drifting into his native Canada. What we saw was different than what he did; as an outsider he experienced it all with new eyes.

“New Orleans is the most musical place I’ve ever been in my life, where there’s more music per square block than anywhere on the planet,” Robertson told Rolling Stone at the time. “Music just seeps out of every crack and every swamp down there. Playing with Ronnie Hawkins when we were the Hawks, back in the old days, was my ticket to the fountainhead. When I was 14, I was in a group called Little Caesar and the Consoles, which was a Huey ‘Piano’ Smith-wannabe band. That’s how long this obsession has been going on.”

Certainly, in his time with the Band, Robbie Robertson had stirred in a few tinges of Big Easy blues. The consistent presence of Allen Toussaint assured that. But Storyville represented an immersive moment, one every bit as resonant — at its best — as Robertson’s earlier forays into the American Civil War years, and into the devastation wrought upon its native peoples.

It’s an imperfect record, if only because of its unwieldy theme. (Back then, Robertson described Storyville, his second solo album, as a kind of divine comedy — like “Dante and Beatrice Go Downtown.”) More generally, however, songs like “Night Parade” absorb the unfettered rhythms and dark mysteries of the city, refashioning them in a textured, wide-screen setting.

Local legends populate the project, perhaps most notably the Meters, giving tracks like “Night Parade” their heart and soul. And in this moment of moon-lit mystery, a voodoo night of both promise and danger, his whispered entreaties have never sounded more perfectly cast.

And so, “Night Parade” works on two levels. In once again interpreting our culture back to us, Robbie Robertson shines a light on an elemental part of rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA — the sound of New Orleans is compact, unique and enduring, despite the criminal lack of wider attention for its original influence and lingering joys — even as he finds another deeply resonant setting for his unique brand of storytelling.

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 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