When I finally got my hands on How To Become Clairvoyant, I could hardly wait to take it home and play it. I had to hear what Robbie Robertson had created, and was convinced that anything Robbie Robertson did with Eric Clapton would be good.
And it is.
How To Become Clairvoyant is a guitar player’s collection of songs.
The songs are:
Straight Down the Line:
Where Robertson’s New Orleans delta affinity shines through. The man who wrote The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down displays his reverence of the spiritual south, whether it’s black magic or Southern Baptist gospel in this song.
Robert Randoph, included in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitar Players, plays a fiery solo on the pedal steel to answer Robertson;’s electric guitar solo.
When the Night Was Young:
My personal favourite, it’s got one of those hooky choruses that keep popping up in your head long after you’ve heard it.
We had dreams when the night was young.
We were believers when the night was young,
We could change the world, stop the war,
Never seen nothing like this before,
But that was back when the night was young
Angela McClusky, a native Glaswegian transplanted to L.A., replaces Richard Manuel’s vocals with hers and harmonizes perfectly with Robertson on some of the verses and all of the choruses.
He Don’t Live Here No More:
A song about addiction with appropriate wild guitar sounds as Clapton plays a solo on the slide guitar and Robertson surprises the listener, who is expecting a roaring electric guitar, by playing a solo on a gut-string guitar which starts with fine Flamenco picking.
The Right Mistake:
Of course Steve Winwood is a part of this project. He plays on three of the songs. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, named Singer of the Year in 1986 who’s been entertaining since before Clapton and Robertson had that visual spark in The Last Waltz in 1972. You can hear his organ clearly on this song which includes solos from Robertson and Clapton and Angela McCluskey’s soulful vocals.
In the credits Bill Dillon is credited with playing the guitar and the guitorgan. A friend saw Steve Winwood at Bluesfest last summer and was very impressed with his live show.
This Is Where I Get Off:
Robertson’s first musical reference to the painful breakup of The Band wherein he and Clapton do simultaneous electric guitar solos and backup singers, Rocco Deluca, Angelyna Boyd, Daryl Johnson, Michelle John and Sharon White contribute as the song builds up to each chorus beginning, “So just pull over / To the side of the road.”
Fear of Falling:
“A mellow Clapton riff” is what I thought the first time I listened to this. Both Robertson and Clapton are credited with writing this song so only they know. It’s an easy going, well crafted blues based song where they both do electric solos and Clapton plays an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are sung back and forth in verses and the two men harmonize on the chorus. The lyrics give it the possibility of being a hit. Steve Winwood’s organ in the background is solid but not intrusive. The backup singers, Taylor Goldsmith of The Dawes, Michelle John and Sharon White supplement Robertson and Clapton’s harmonies on the chorus. Their blues roots shine through here.
She’s Not Mine:
“Anthemic” is the word which first came to mind when I heard this song, though that description sounds a bit grandiose now that I’ve listened to the song often. It’s very impressive with its strategic, distant drums, lyrical imagery and musical sound. It’s the only song in the collection which credits Jim Keltner (a mainstay for decades in the rock recording scene) on drums as well as Ian Thomas. The rest of the tracks feature Pino Palladino on bass and Ian Thomas on drums.
Pino Palladino has played bass with everyone from The Who to Eric Clapton to Don Henley and Elton John, who has a Fender bass named after him. One of the best in the business.
I became aware of fretless bass in Paul Young’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home). I learn, all these years later, that Pino Palladino (from Cardiff) played the fretless bass on that song.
Ian Thomas, also born in Cardiff, is as technically perfect as a rock drummer can get with just the right amount of emotion in his playing.
A gentle instrumental Clapton wrote. He plays it on a gut string guitar while Robertson plays electric guitar and Trent Reznor, former front man of Nine Inch Nails, adds “Additional Textures”. The song’s bridge evokes “Tears In Heaven.”
In “Axman,” an homage to the tradition of the guitar slinger, Robertson names many of the old blues players, as well as Jimi and Stevie Ray, Doing the guitar solo on a song dedicated to “brothers of the blade” is an honour given to Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine.
Won’t Be Back:
A song by Clapton and Robertson, produced, as all of these songs were, by Marius de Vries, on which he plays keyboard and Eldad Guetta provides the horns.
How to Become Clairvoyant:
Written by Robertson, this song includes the playing of Robert Randolph on the pedal steel guitar as well as Robertson’s electric guitar with Marcus de Vries on piano. Pino Palladino and Ian Thomas provide the beat, while Dana Glover and Natalie Mendoza are the backup voices.
Just when you think you’ve listened to some heavy guitar and it’s all very serious, Robbie Robertson speaks at the end of the song, “Now that would be a revelation / And I also enjoy levitation.”
Tango for Django:
It is natural and fitting that a guitar player’s recording contains a tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all, Django Rhinehart. Robertson plays it on a gut string guitar as it leads with violins reminiscent of Stefan Grappelli, into a growing roll of kettle drums and on to the formal introduction of a slow tango. As he wrote a musically correct waltz for The Last Waltz, Robertson has written, with Marcus de Vries, a formally correct (I assume) tango using Frank Morocco on accordian, Anne Marie Calhoun on violin, and Tina Guo on cello in this tribute to Django.
(I wonder if Henry Miller heard Django in Paris in the Thirties. I like to think he did.)
There is always a texture to Robertson’s stuff, something a little wild and weird, usually in his intros. In The Last Waltz he is surrounded by extraordinary musicians so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s again surrounded by the same.
Eric Clapton isn’t named in “Axman” but he played on six of Robertson’s songs, co-wrote two and unveiled his Instrumental, Madame X, on How To Become Clairvoyant. His participation is his approval and his tribute.
Even if you are not a rock guitar fan nor a fan of The Band or Eric Clapton, this collection of rock songs, sung unapologetically in rock language, is worth listening to. It has what all good rock ‘n roll has always had – surprise.
They didn’t have to do it for money. Sometimes it’s as simple as two old guitar players having fun.