AUSTIN, Texas – The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has nothing on South By Southwest (SXSW) keynote speaker Robbie Robertson.
Thursday morning (March 14), the DreamWorks Records executive and former member of The Band shared his own personal Odyssey -– O Brother is based on Homer’s -– in a speech lasting an hour and 15 minutes.
Comparing his career to a journey inspired by music and filled with challenges to be met, Robertson reviewed the circumstances of his discovery of music as an outlet for creativity. He described learning to play the guitar (after seeing Gene Autry and the singing cowboys) and write songs, working with Ronnie Hawkins, coming together with the musicians who would become The Band, aligning with Bob Dylan and embarking on his own career as a solo artist, film composer, champion of Native American music and record executive.
Robertson also talked at length about The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film of The Band’s last performance together, on Thanksgiving 1976. To mark the film’s 25th anniversary, it will be re-released April 5 for a limited theatrical run. A four-CD box set -– with 24 previously unreleased performances from the concert, rehearsals and film — follows April 16 on Warner Bros./Rhino, and a special edition DVD comes out May 7.
With music sales in decline and the nation in crisis, “a lot of people are crying ‘doom and gloom’ out there,” Robertson told the SXSW audience. “It makes me a little uneasy that we’re inclined to forget why we came here in the beginning.”
He wondered how artists such as Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan might have fared had they been trying to make their start today. “It took a while,” he explained, “to become knowledgeable of their work. And The Band was together for seven years before we made Music From Big Pink [their first album].”
With Dylan, Robertson came to Nashville to record the classic double album Blonde on Blonde, released in 1966. “I didn’t know about this, but it was very clique-ish there,” he recalled. “In Nashville, if you were part of the clique, everything was fine. If you weren’t, they didn’t want to know about you. We walked in that place, and I felt a chill. It was not a nice feeling at all.”
When he played his solos on “Obviously 5 Believers,” Robertson said, “everything opened up and everybody was really OK after that. It was like the clouds cleared in the sky, and the sun was shining through. … I guess once you proved something musically then that whole world opened up to you.”
After The Last Waltz, Robertson collaborated with Scorsese on film projects, supplying music for Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. He is heartened, he says, by the success and the Grammy wins of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“It gave me faith that everybody just isn’t in this tunnel vision of the obvious and of shallowness,” Robertson said. “It’s such a piece of Americana, that music. It really made me feel good. I found myself cheering.”
Robertson and The Band embraced traditional roots music styles in their work, drawing from blues, gospel, country and rock ‘n’ roll. The character of the O Brother soundtrack might appeal to him, he conceded, because it re-affirms the values that his group stood for originally.
“I’m drawn to that. I believe in that,” he said. “I’m sure that the timeless factor is very valuable and probably, subconsciously, I’m complimenting myself in appreciating it … I’m sure that has something to do with it, too.”
During his visit to SXSW, Robertson also is wearing his record executive’s hat. He’ll keep an appointment to hear newly signed DreamWorks band eastmountainsouth on Saturday. The Los Angeles-based duo describe themselves as “progressive Americana” specializing in “uplifting songs of loss and despair.” Robertson says they have a little of the O Brother flavor.
“Hearing them does that thing we’ve been talking about,” he said. “It touches that place inside you and gives you chills. I’m looking forward to that.”