5 Robbie Robertson Deep Cuts
5 Robbie Robertson Deep Cuts© Provided by American Songwriter

The death of Robbie Robertson was a gut punch of epic proportions for music fans all over the world. As chief songwriter for The Band, Robertson was responsible for a collection of songs that are nothing less than rock standards: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” “Chest Fever,” “It Makes No Difference,” and on and on.

As we reflect on Robertson’s incredible life and career, it seems like as good a time as ever to dig deep into his catalog to find some tracks, both with The Band and as a solo artist, that the casual fan might have missed. Here are five unheralded gems that everyone should know.

1. “The Rumor,” The Band (feature on Stage Fright 1970)

The first two albums by The Band are hallowed among critics and fans alike, so it’s hard to argue that any of the songs on those records are unheralded. Some of the critical groundswell had waned by Stage Fright, and that album doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as the other two by folks compiling best-of lists. That’s a shame because it’s just as sharp in many ways, even if it’s more of a downer. It also means that some of the songs don’t get as much attention, such as “The Rumor,” the haunting album-closer. Robertson writes a song where the titular phenomenon essentially comes to life, and it’s as destructive in its way as a horror movie villain, sweeping silently through a small town and damaging lives. It’s no temporary damage either: “You can forgive, you can regret, but you can never, ever forget.” Even with all three of The Band’s brilliant singers (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel) trading vocals and weaving in and out of harmony, you’re still left with a feeling of distinctive unease thanks to Robertson’s piercing lyrics.

2. “Bessie Smith,” The Band (featured on The Basement Tapes 1975)

A lot of rock purists balked at the fact that there were songs included on the official release of The Basement Tapes that weren’t originally found on Great White Wonder, the bootleg collection of songs recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band circa 1967-68 in Woodstock, New York. “Bessie Smith” was one of those songs, recorded well after that magical period. But if you can get past that, you’ll hear a lovely, subtle track that imagines someone trying to court Bessie Smith, the legendary blues singer. Robertson even sings lead on the track (which he rarely did with The Band) while co-writer Rick Danko provides the high harmonies. Garth Hudson’s brilliantly idiosyncratic work on organ is icing on the cake for this ballad, which includes some cosmically catchy lines, such as But if you’re lucky someday you’ll find out/Where it is you’re really coming from.  It ends with the narrator wondering why he fell for her: “Was it her sweet love or the way that she could sing?”

3. “Hobo Jungle,” The Band (featured on Northern Lights-Southern Cross 1975)

Much like Paul McCartney rallied the fracturing Beatles to make Abbey Road and cement their legacy before the breakup, Robertson pulled together The Band for Northern Lights-Southern Cross. (Technically, Islands in 1977 was the last album with the original five, but that was little more than a collection of odds and ends needed to fulfill their record contract.) Perhaps that’s why much of the album feels like an elegy, for lost love (“It Makes No Difference”), and for lost history (“Acadian Driftwood”). Those two songs and the rollicking “Ophelia” received most of the accolades upon the album’s release. But “Hobo Jungle” is every bit as special, a song where Robertson’s talent for storytelling and his empathy for outcasts combine in a moving fashion. Richard Manuel’s clear-eyed vocal is one for the ages as well. Robertson imbues these “drifters and rounders” with the dignity of royalty.

4. “She’s Not Mine,” Robbie Robertson (featured on How to Become Clairvoyant 2011)

Robertson’s solo career, which began with his excellent 1987 self-titled album, was marked by long time spans between records. When he suited up for How to Become Clairvoyant (2011), it had been a full 13 years since his last album. “She’s Not Mine” is perhaps the most fascinating song on that record because of how it represents a road not originally traveled by Robbie. The Band famously shied away from psychedelia in favor of more homespun music. But this track sounds like it could have been found in a late ’60s collection somewhere between “Incense and Peppermints” and “Time Has Come Today.” The guest list is quite impressive, with Eric Clapton trading spaced-out guitar licks with Robbie (some of them played backward) and Steve Winwood adding spectral organ. But it’s all in service of a marvelous song about a narrator who’s been traveling so long that he finds that he can’t quite get home again, at least not to the heart of his true love.

5. “Once Were Brothers,” Robbie Robertson (featured on Sinematic 2019)

When American Songwriter asked Robbie Robertson in a 2019 interview if he had a hard time composing this song that referenced his experiences with The Band, he responded, “I didn’t struggle with it at all, but it was extremely emotional. The fact that Richard has passed away, Rick has passed away, Levon has passed away, tears my heart out. Writing a song that I can share some of that feeling, I guess you could say that there was that kind of fulfillment in it.”

The song speaks more in emotions than specifics, as Robertson expresses why The Band was a finite entity that somehow still lives on for so many. Although “Once Were Brothers” doesn’t shy away from the harder times, it also acknowledges the bond between these five men: But we stood together/Like we were next of kin. Robertson was a busy guy at the time of that album’s release, so much so that the other projects might have overshadowed Sinematic a bit. If you haven’t heard it, check it out, and hear how this song puts a bow on his transcendent career.