Robbie Robertson, with Neil Young + Garth Hudson, “Soap Box Preacher” from Storyville (1991): Across the Great Divide

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“Soap Box Preacher,” even without the presence of Garth Hudson, stands as one of the most direct solo links to Robbie Robertson’s earlier triumphs with the Band. In tone, feel and musical approach, this standout moment from 1991’s Storyville holds up well along side the best of what came before.

As obvious as that sentiment might sound, it’s not — not within the context of Robbie Robertson’s often-determinedly adventurous time away from the Band. He’s often gone far afield of expectations, pushing himself in ways that tended to surprise, occasionally frustrate but more typically reward those willing to put aside nostalgia in favor of brand new horizons.

Yet, as this involving street-corner fable unfolds, it’s clear all over again that you can take Robbie Robertson out of context, but — when the muse turns a certain way, and the music gathers just right, and he’s surrounded by simpatico collaborators like Hudson and Neil Young — he’s still Robbie Robertson.

Garth Hudson, the reliable genius, is featured on keyboards while Neil Young takes over the role of yearning second vocal that usually went to Rick Danko. Jerry Marotta and Ronald Jones offer canny takes on Levon Helm’s legendary lope, adding in a few just-right touches of second-line fun. In place of Allen Toussaint, who so often put new muscle on the Band’s music, steps arranger Wardell Quezergue.

Together, they create a sense of reverent wonderment around one of Robbie Robertson’s very best modern-era lyrics. We find a seer walking determinedly through “Soap Box Preacher,” his visage completed by proud shoes and a cross of passion, ignoring as best he can “the wreckage and the rumble” all round to share his simple message of faith.

“Soap Box Preacher” rewarded those who’d waited, perhaps impatiently, in the hopes that Robertson could conjure such magic again with a character as fully formed and memorable as Virgil Caine, Crazy Chester or the rootless wanderers of “Acadian Driftwood.”

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.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jimmy Nelson
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