- - Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Become Clairvoyant

Robbie Robertson

429 Records

Although a contemporary of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson has become something of an unsung hero since the late ‘80s, when his songwriting skills last caught the public’s eye. He used to be a musical tornado, however, touching down at key moments in rock ‘n’ roll’s history and leaving a big impact.

Mr. Robertson performed with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins in the early ‘60s. Years later, he helped Bob Dylan go electric during the songwriter’s 1966 tour. Then, as a member of The Band, he pioneered a rootsy, country-influenced sound during an era dominated by psychedelic music.

Nowadays, Mr. Robertson seems to prefer a slow drizzle of behind-the-scenes jobs — mainly film scores, with the occasional sideman gig — to the constant glare of the limelight. This makes “How to Become Clairvoyant,” his first solo album in 13 years, an interesting return to the guitar-driven music that launched his career.

“How to Become Clairvoyant” won’t make Mr. Robertson a household name to a new generation. The guest musicians who lend their help to the project — Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor and others — have more star power than Mr. Robertson himself, and Mr. Clapton often steals the spotlight by co-writing some of the album’s best numbers.

Where Mr. Robertson’s past solo albums fumbled, though, “How to Become Clairvoyant” sounds determined and self-assured. These tracks don’t experiment with jazz influences or Native American chants, focusing instead on a mix of blues, funk and country-rock. It’s a homecoming of sorts, aimed at the baby boomers and Americana fans who’ve made “The Last Waltz” an annual part of their Thanksgiving routine since the late-‘70s.

In addition to handling most of the vocal and guitar duties, Mr. Robertson fills the album with lyrics that are unsparingly autobiographical, turning what could’ve been an instrumental showcase into a very personal song cycle. “This is Where I Get Off” deals with his exit from The Band, and “He Don’t Live Here No More” shines a light on the dark temptations of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Mr. Robertson keeps things completely old-school. He co-produces the album with Marius de Vries, famous for his work with pop crooners like Josh Groban and Rufus Wainwright. He also enlists help from Tom Morello, a modern guitarist whose style differs wildly from Mr. Robertson’s own, which adds some modern flavor to his vintage Southern gumbo.

Still, “How to Become Clairvoyant” is fairly straightforward guitar music, relying more on familiarity than innovation and offering few surprises beyond the star-studded guest list. After avoiding this type of music for decades, though, Mr. Robertson has earned the right to return to his roots — and he hasn’t lost his touch.

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Steady as She Goes

Hot Tuna

Red House Records

Also making a return to the mainstream this week is Hot Tuna, the veteran blues-rock spinoff of Jefferson Airplane. Although the group has toured heavily for decades, “Steady as She Goes” marks Hot Tuna’s first studio album since 1990.

This isn’t the band’s original lineup, with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady serving as the only link between Hot Tuna’s past and present incarnations. The sound hasn’t changed, though, and “Steady as She Goes” throws a bone to returning fans by including an updated version of “Easy Now,” originally heard on 1973’s “The Phosphorescent Rat.”

There are no guest appearances on “Steady as She Goes,” and Hot Tuna has already debuted several of these songs in concert. There’s comfort in familiarity, though, and the band certainly sounds comfortable here.

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Fans pledge allegiance to The Damnwells

Not every group can rely on a multi-decade career to generate interest in a new album. The Damnwells stirred up awareness of their newest release, “No One Listens to the Band Anymore,” by involving their fans as stakeholders via PledgeMusic.com.

Launched in August 2009, PledgeMusic is a fan-funded music platform that enables bands to finance their albums through their own audience. “Incentives” are doled out according to the size of the donation. For example, The Damnwells rewarded fans who pledged $25 with a T-shirt, a signed copy of the album and more than 10 digital downloads. House concerts, signed lyric sheets and other unique items were offered to those who pledged more.

“There’s something wrong with you if you’re not hesitant about knocking on your fans’ doors and asking for money,” admits frontman Alex Dezen, “but I quickly warmed to the idea. It made more sense than getting involved with a corporate record label that has its own bottom line and isn’t necessarily concerned with the aesthetic of the art it’s manufacturing.”

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