Robbie Robertson: Storyville
Nov 25, 1991
STORYVILLE, Robbie Robertson (Geffen)
It’s a cute title, Storyville. It conjures up both the legendary red-light section of New Orleans, where the earliest strains of rock’n’roll were probably heard, and a more metaphoric place, which might contain the stories Robbie Robertson has to tell.
It’s also a title that sets high expectations. The original Storyville was a notorious and colourful underworld that has already engendered volumes of stories and no doubt could fill many more. Could Robertson’s Storyville possibly be as rich in music and fables as the one that once existed?
The short answer is no. Not that Robertson hasn’t tried; the problem is more that he’s tried too hard. Both the writing and production of this album have been meticulously honed to the point where spark and spontaneity are just about obliterated and the whole thing groans under the weight of over-attention.
Ever since his days as songwriter/guitarist of the Band, Robertson’s been a stickler for detail. Even the Band’s most rustic-sounding arrangements were carefully constructed to achieve their old-timey effect. But there were always a few wild elements to set off the precision. Levon Helm’s delta folk drumming, Richared Manuel’s desperate falsetto and Garth Hudson’s crazy carnival organ were just a few things that always threatened to burst out of the Band’s tight structures, giving the music its rich and inimitable character.
Without the Band, Robertson’s songs become finely controlled studio constructions, flawlessly performed and at times attaining a real grandeur but never the sense of community that infused the Band’s work. And his clenched-throated vocals are simply no substitute for the voices of Helm, Manuel and Danko.
The credits are extensive and impressive. A single tracks features the diverse contributions of the Rebirth Brass Band, gospel quintet the Zion Harmonizers, Meters’ bassist George Porter, old Cream drummer Ginger Baker and REM’s Mike Mills. But they don’t create interesting tensions or unusual juxtapositions. The guests just get blended into Robertson’s over-nice orchestrations.
Perhaps the individual who comes closest to adding his personality to the project in the mysterious Wardell Quezergue, a producer/arranger whose work has graced numerous New Orleans classics since the early 60s. His horn arrangements slide around like a real street band on the opening ‘Night Parade’, take on the solemnity of a funeral procession on ‘Soap Box preacher’ and recall the funk of the Meters (who also play a welcome cameo) on ‘Go Back To Your Woods’.
Robertson made his original reputation as a guitarist and those accompanied in his pre-Band/Dylan days, like bluesman John Hammond, still recall his playing with awe. Storyville has flashes of his fiery fretwork, like the jabbing solo in ‘Back To Your Woods’ or the acoustic lines woven throughout the disc.
But most of the attention Robertson’s had over the years has been centred on his skill as a yarn-spinner. This talent shone brightest when creating character parts for his fellow Band members. Crafting ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ for Levon’s saucy southern drawl or ‘It Makes No Difference’ for Rick Danko’s soulful wail are just random examples of his brilliance. Sad to say he’s less inspired when writing for himself.
He aims for high drama and at times almost achieves it: losing his lover in the carnival crowd (‘Night Parade’), or a fated romance in a “dusty little railroad town smack in the heart of the Bible belt” (‘Day Of Reckoning’). But both these songs, like so many on the album, get bogged down in mean-street clichés that reek of his post-Band years, hanging around Martin Scorsese. He delivers colourless lines like “the scene was dark and the street was gritty” in sombre tones that attempt to convince the listener (and, I guess, himself) that this is potent imagery.
But there’s nothing here that has the narrative power of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the colourful comedy of ‘WS Walcott Medicine Show’ or the simple passion of ‘Makes No Difference’, songs Robertson wrote before he had had screeds written about his storytelling talent, before he had spent a decade on the fringes of Hollywood, and before it was acceptable to spend four years creating 50 minutes of overworked rock’n’roll.