There's a mournful track on Robbie Robertson's latest album that clearly stands out. Called Once Were Brothers, it's as sad as an obituary. In a way it is.
The former songwriter and guitarist for The Band wrote it in honour of his four Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ex-bandmates, three of whom have died. His raspy voice doesn't disguise his grief: "There'll be no revival/ There'll be no encore/Once were brothers/Brothers no more."
Robertson, 76, said in a recent interview that he was in a melancholy mood when he wrote the song, already looking back on his life while he was helping create a new documentary on The Band.
"I sat down to write a song and I had no idea of what I was looking for or what I was going to do. And this just started coming my way," he said. "I've lost three of my brothers," adding: "There's a big piece missing now and I feel it deeply inside."
Once Were Brothers is the second track on Robertson's new album, Sinematic, and it became the name to the documentary by director Daniel Roher. The atmospheric Sinematic explores the dark parts of humanity, with songs about Chinese and American mobsters, climate change and the human imperative toward violence. "Shall we take a little spin/To the dark side of town?" he asks in the opening song, I Hear You Paint Houses, about a hitman.
Bruce Resnikoff, CEO of Universal Music Enterprises, said the album is moody and evocative. "But it also sees him travelling in new musical directions he had not previously explored. The songs play like mini-movies with some sinful subject matter."
Robertson is in a purple patch of late. Besides his own music, he's written music for the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, is writing a second volume of his memoir Testimony and is celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Band's self-titled album with a new box set.
The Band fused rock, blues, folk and gospel to create an authentically American sound. They hewed their complex sound backing Bob Dylan when he first went electric. Composed of drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Richard Manuel, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson and Robertson (the latter two are the only surviving members), The Band's rustic music crossed generational lines at a time when the country was in turmoil and divisive. Robertson is still in awe of what his group managed to do.
"Nobody was writing songs like that. Nobody was making music that sounded like that," he said. "It was totally against the grain and it ended up having a profound effect on the course of rock 'n' roll and music."
Drugs and dissension soon took their toll, warping the tight musicianship of the members. "For the most part, we were playing to one another and we were communicating with one another. And if somebody is on a different wavelength in that communication, you can't connect," said Robertson.
The Band broke up in 1976, going out with a bang in a memorable, starry concert finale that was turned into the film The Last Waltz, directed by Scorsese. Robertson said the idea was to celebrate the band and let all its members take a breather.
"Then we would come back together and the idea was to create something as good as anything we'd ever done," he said. "At some point it was obvious that everybody forgot to come back."
Other members of The Band grew bitter about the many songwriting credits that Robertson accumulated and the original band members — except Robertson — regrouped and began touring in the 1980s. Helm expressed his anger at Robertson in an autobiography and was absent when The Band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The 50th anniversary deluxe edition of the album The Band, out this week, will feature one the group's biggest culture-shifting moments: its 1969 performance at Woodstock, which has never been officially released. Robertson recalls hitting the stage on the final night of the three-day festival and having to win over the audience.
"People were jumping up and down and muddy and wild and having the time of their lives and they wanted to rock. They wanted to get crazier, even. And when we went out and played, it was similar to somebody coming out and playing hymns," he said. "We left and they went right back to the other thing. But for that period of time, they kind of went to church or something."
Resnikoff said the whole box set — including several unreleased alternative takes and instrumental mixes that Robertson has unearthed — was done with care and respect. "His intention was to pull you deeper into the music," he said. "It's riveting."
Robertson's solo career has included a lot of film work. He said he grew up as a "film bug — if I hadn't become so addicted to music at such a young age I would have ended up in movie land and would have been a writer or a director or something."
He forged a natural bond with Scorsese, working on the director's Casino, Raging Bull and The Departed. It was Robertson who used funky, dirty Southern blues in The Wolf of Wall Street. His score for The Irishman is "unlike anything I've ever done in my life".
When asked if he's enjoying the process of digging in his past and also creating new music, Robertson casts back to when he was an awestruck teenager. He recalls being 16 and leaving Canada for the Mississippi Delta with the crazy idea of getting hired by rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins.
"At this stage in my life I think I'm still on that mission. I'm still doing that. I'm still so curious and I'm so much enjoying the discovery process," he said. "I just I don't know how to stop."