One time I was talking with my dad about COVID and he said “when you get to be my age, all your friends and enemies have mostly dropped by the wayside – unless you’re one of the ones who drop.” He’s 90, now.

So, now, it’s time to say goodbye to Robbie Robertson, founder of The Band – a musician of extraordinary subtle impact – who died today at 80. Robbie started off as a kid playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the hawks, but eventually broke into the bigtime as the founder of The Band, which quickly became Bob Dylan’s backing ensemble when Dylan famously “went electric.”

Robbie Robertson on guitar, with Bob Dylan. Normally, Robbie would be standing in Dylan’s shadow.

When The Band broke up (with their famous concert “The Last Waltz” filmed by Martin Scorsese) Robertson went on to do pretty much everything. Or, whatever the hell he wanted. Same thing. I won’t say he was everywhere, but The Band members and Robbie had a way of cropping up in unexpected places. For example, when Sinead O’Connor died last week, someone mentioned her performance at “The Wall” in Berlin, so I looked it up on youtube and there, in Sinead’s shadow was Garth Hudson, who was the musical heart and soul of The Band. And Rick Danko. I didn’t see Robbie but maybe it was because I didn’t look into the shadows deeply enough. For a guitar player at the peak of rock ‘n roll’s great era of amazing soloists – and Robbie was no slouch at all – he seemed to be a solid collaborator and not a showboat. In “The Last Waltz” he plays guitar with (as opposed to “against”) Eric Clapton, and hands in yet another supporting act that makes his collaborator look good.

Robbie’s solo career was spotty but infused with greatness. Like many musicians, he fell under the spell of producer Daniel Lanois, and came out with an album that was much better than one would expect. Lanois, love him or hate him, has a track record of pulling musicians into performing a couple levels higher than they are. The result was a 1987 album by the performer’s name, which had some really sweet tracks, including a life-long favorite of mine.

The whole album is really good and it’s recorded with Lanois’ characteristic huge sound-space.

It’s probably not fair, but I always felt like The Band and Robbie were the original “Blues Brothers” – an itinerant bunch who kept cropping up here and there, doing the unexpected, and always doing it really well. I was about to write something potentially stupid about how The Band and Robbie remind me of John Fogerty – tremendously influential and sort of all over the 1970s, and then I was wondering if Robbie ever played with John. And, of course, he did. Robbie was the kind of guy that, when a producer was saying, “we need a really solid backup band for ${whoever}’s induction into the Hall of Fame, hey, how about The Band?” well, you thought of The Band. Here’s Robbie backing up John Fogerty and I think Bruce Springsteen and a bunch of miscellaneous geniuses: youtube.

Midjourney AI and mjr: “imagine Robbie Robertson”

Thanks for all the music, Robbie.

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All of this “favorite musicians dying” bullshit is bullshit. As dad said, it’s an inevitable consequence of their being in their 20s when I was a teenager, so they’re ahead of me in the line. Ugh. Maybe I should step out of my place in line so I don’t have to watch the rest of Led Zeppelin go. Or Fogerty. Or, or, or… Again, it makes me wonder, why we have to lose people like Prince and Sinead, Dr John and Robbie, when Henry Kissinger still crouches like an evil toad, getting tongue-baths from senior members of both parties. Ugh.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    I came to know The Band because I babysat the children of people who were fans.
    I really loved “Music from the Big Pink”, even though my taste at the time ran more to The Monkees and such-like.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Catch the blue train
    Places never been before
    Look for me
    Somewhere down the crazy river

  3. billseymour says

    chigau @3:  I liked the Big Pink album as well.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, the song I remember is “The Weight”.

  4. Jazzlet says

    Part of the sound track of my life.

    And that of the brother I’ve recently lost, he was the one who introduced me to the Band along with so much more, ten years older than me he’d heard and seen so many people I came to love.

  5. Oggie: Mathom says

    Just listened to The Shape I’m In after dropping the twins off at preschool.

    I remember growing up and listening to my parents talk about what actor/musician/singer/comedian had just died. And I wondered what the fuss was about. I have grown up listening to so many artists, some of whom died before I discovered them (Janice, for example). But now I tune in to the news (online now) and see people I remember listening to when the music came out and was on commercial radio passing away.

    Nice thing is, the music is so much more accessible now — no more rooting through eclectic record stores to find a particular album — that the music seems to have a longer life.

    Of course, tuning in to a classic rock station and hearing a song that came out when I was in high school is just not right.

  6. paramad51 says

    “The Weight” is standard for any jam session. I have played it in many different ways but the song is so iconic you recognize it anyway and it still reaches out. All the players and singers put their hearts into “Take a load off Annie” the sheer joy of launching into the cascading harmonies gives you wings!
    We have once again lost a special talent but he lives on through all the great music he created with The Band. What a fitting memorial.

  7. jenorafeuer says

    Heard about this last night myself. (Unsurprisingly, the Canadian news was pretty quick on reporting this.) As you say, Robertson was one of those people who was just always there without over-the-top showboating. Like Leonard Cohen, some of their songs ended up even more popular based on covers of them: I heard Joan Baez’s cover of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down well before I heard the original, as that was the one on the radio all the time during the 1970s.

    With Gordon Lightfoot dying earlier this year as well, it’s not been a good year for Canadian folk/rock music. But as you say (and as my grandparents used to say), either you go first, or you get to watch everybody else you knew go before you.

  8. DonDueed says

    I was a huge fan of The Band. I only knew of their few hits (The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, “Old Dixie”) until around ’72, when some friends and I went to the Watkins Glen festival. I went for the Dead and the Allmans, but it was The Band that blew me away that day. Absolutely superb.

    I too loved the eponymous solo album, particularly the song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”. Talk about mood! Drums and percussion by the great Manu Katche, who people may also know for his work with Peter Gabriel (notably on “In Your Eyes”).

  9. says

    The AI picture looks more like Richard Feynman than Robbie Robertson (except for the hair).

    Many of us look more and more like old guys, as we age. ;)

  10. markp8703 says

    I honestly don’t have an issue with people I admire dying at eighty or thereabouts.

    It’s when people I admired and listened to as a teenager die horribly prematurely, through disease or suicide, that I get upset.

    UK-biased feelings: I still miss Freddie Mercury, Ian Dury and Kenny Everett. All were important to me and all died far too young.

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