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Autobiographical album loaded with guest stars was worth the wait

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For his fifth solo album, How to Become Clairvoyant (429 Records), former Band guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson has assembled a group of crafty veteran musicians and savvy young players to form a memorable and almost mystical summation of a career that has spanned six decades and is a cornerstone of rock history.

Clairvoyant is admittedly Robertson’s most personal record, and even though its arrival comes 13 years after the release of Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy, it was worth the wait.

In the 429 Records press materials, Robertson says the project was a “rising to the surface [of] personal experiences. I just found a comfort zone in expressing that … in a bit of a mysterious way.” The genesis of the album began with Robertson and Eric Clapton exchanging musical ideas, then reuniting years later to flesh out the tracks they left incomplete. He describes the collaboration with Clapton (who co-wrote two songs with Robertson and penned another alone) as “guitars taking to each other.”

“Straight Down the Line” is filled with whimsical dream-like imagery. The narrator meets an old bluesman with a walking cane who tells him “there’s some tough choices to be made.” Later, while taking refuge in a church with a gospel choir “singing of war and peace,” he encounters a woman in a black robe who says, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll/I would not be moved to sell my soul/the demons are out tonight.” A wonderful pedal steel guitar solo from Robert Randolph enhances the track.

“When the Night Was Young” is a standout about early days on the road and at New York’s Hotel Chelsea with Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. “We had dreams/when the night was young/We were believers … We could change the world/stop the war.” It is a lament for a bygone era: “What is lost?/What is missing?” the narrator asks rhetorically.

“He Don’t Live Here No More” is another autobiographical song about excess and change. During the ’70s, Robertson admits to a lifestyle of “insanity and decadence” that he shared with his housemate and friend, film director Martin Scorsese (who directed The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert film, which released in 1978). “Survival was at stake,” he concludes, and he abruptly changes course. Robertson’s gut-string guitar solo adds an edgy texture to the track.

“This Is Where I Get Off” is the first time Robertson has broached the subject of The Band’s breakup in a musical context. It is a subtle and poetic acknowledgement of the need to move on and grow, and the lack of acrimony gives the listener the feeling of two lovers parting.

“Fear of Falling” begins with a bluesy vocal by Clapton and signature keyboard work by Steve Winwood. Robertson plays off the fellow veterans so well that the song has intimations of such supergroups as Cream and Blind Faith.

“Axman” is a tribute to guitar greats Jimi Hendrix (whom Robertson remembers as Jimi James) and the three Kings (Albert, Freddie and B.B. King). Guitarist Tom Morello of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine fame helps to conjure up the spirits of the players being honored.

The artistic mix throughout How to Become Clairvoyant is precise and controlled. Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas add a rock-solid foundation to the tracks. Robertson says he found the guitar contributions of Morello and Randolph “fascinating … both of these guys do something that I don’t understand … they play a different instrument.” Singers Taylor Goldsmith, Angelyna Boyd and others bring a soulful texture to the undertakings. Marius de Vries (who co-produced the record with Robertson) contributes inspired keyboard layers to several tracks.

How to Become Clairvoyant is an expert blending of autobiographical songwriting and musicianship. The album washes over you like a welcome balmy night — each song has its own divine character — and is a statement of wonderment and mystery.

— By Donald Gavron