Released in tandem with the 40th anniversary of the Band’s The Last Waltz, as well as his autobiography, Robbie Robertson’s Testimony is a snapshot of the songwriter and musician’s tumultuous run as co-founder of the Band, Bob Dylan’s guitarist, and eclectic solo artist. The record’s 18 songs provide a fairly complete overview of where Robertson has hung his musical hat for the past 50-plus years.
If you pick up his book, also called Testimony, you learn how Robertson’s half-Jewish, half-Mohawk upbringing on the Six Nations Indian Reserve and in Toronto, plus an odyssey at 16 to the Mississippi Delta, helped to form his world view and prepared him for the wild touchstones and magical communions that defined his life’s path. The Testimony compilation simply supplies the soundtrack.
From his six solo albums (if you count Music For the Native Americans and the Carny soundtrack), there are only five songs — “Testimony” (with a new Unity mix) and “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” from Robertson’s self-titled 1987 solo album; “Soap Box Preacher” from 1991’s Storyville; “Unbound” from 1998’s Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy; and “When The Night Was Young” from 2011’s How To Become A Clairvoyant.
The rest of the CD is really where Robertson’s peak years as a guitarist and songwriter are showcased. “Come Love” from Ronnie Hawkins’ & The Hawks, and the two Levon & the Hawks tracks — “He Don't Love You (And He'll Break Your Heart)” and “I'm Gonna Play the Honky Tonks”— are all early, basic rock and roll examples of what eventually became the Band. Both of the Dylan songs — the sizzling live version of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” from 1974’s Before The Flood, and “Obviously 5 Believers” from 1966’s Blonde On Blonde — capture Robertson’s agile touch on what was most likely a Stratocaster.
It’s with the Band that Robertson wrote his greatest songs, and there are eight in various live and studio takes on Testimony. Of note are the versions of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight," “Life Is A Carnival,” and “The Shape I’m In” from the Live At The Academy Music 1971 disc — classic songs that come alive on the concert stage as the fluid chemistry between the five Band members coagulates into a tight camaraderie of measured musicianship of the highest caliber.
Robertson’s voice on his solo records is somewhat ominous, ragged with wisdom, desperate in conviction. On “Twilight,” an undated song sketch previously buried on a Band box set and now included on Testimony, the bare essence of that voice is a little less weary, almost hopeful, optimistic. Indeed, Robbie Robertson is a musical chameleon of sorts, and a bit of a mystery in general. Forty years after he bid farewell to his time with the Band, his career — before, during and since then — is worthy of the in-depth examination Testimony provides.
~ Shawn Perry