Trail of Tears

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THIS SHOULD COME AS NO SURprise. The tensile, ravishing songs on Music for the Native Americans have been aborning, under one title or another, since Robbie Robertson's early glory days with the Band. As that seminal group's linchpin, Robertson wrote spooky, spunky and romantic valedictories to the mythic ghosts of American history: rounders and robbers, gamblers and wanderers, the proud, the humble and the haunted.

On this new Capitol album, working with a loose federation of musicians called the Red Road Ensemble, Robertson steps up to his most daunting theme, the tragedy and majesty of the American Indian. He returns from this trail of tears like an explorer who has reclaimed shards of the past -- some history, some wisdom, a portion of fury and, most of all, a great undimmed fire.

. The music, written for a documentary series that aired last month on the TBS cable network, is highly collaborative. Robertson is listed as the writer or arranger of seven songs; the remaining 12 are credited to various members of the Red Road Ensemble. But any Robertson fan will feel his prevailing touch, sure and mystic, in the eldritch rhythms of songs like Twisted Hair, Golden Feather and It Is a Good Day to Die, which combine the intricate textures of Native American song and dance with a surreptitious modernism that has its roots in both old blues and new electronic programming.

Most of the performers, including Robertson, have some Native American ancestry, which gives the music not only pertinence but resonance. Robertson has made splendid music before. This time, in every sense, the songs are written in blood.