The companion album to Robbie Robertson’s new memoirs is every bit a Testimony. Testaments to rock ‘n’ roll in its hatching state all the way up to self-indulgent spoken word nonsense over a corny, funky jazz loop. Truth be told, part of me wanted to hate this record as would anyone fresh off former bandmate Levon Helm’s fantastic biography, This Wheel’s on Fire, basically calling Robertson a thief. That said, I felt poised to throw my darts in honor of Levon and the gang. Or, well, that is until I listened to the record and realized how great it is. It’s quite a way to honor the 40th anniversary of perhaps one of the greatest live rock shows in history, The Last Waltz.
By a few bars into “Bessie Smith”, it’s clear that this is a collection of Robertson’s greatest and favorite works — a “mixtape” like we called it when we were kids for any of you past your third decade on earth. Clearly known for his mastery of stringed instruments and not his croon, Robertson cultivated a collection to remind you he can do that too … sort of. That’s the beauty of it, though. His semi-gravelly sometimes off-key vocals draw you in like an old friend, perhaps since you’ve undoubtedly heard the prose in numerous songs just usually sung by other people.
Even the aforementioned self-indulgence of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” houses enough cool in a creepily absurd sort of way to be enjoyable. Think the whitest Neville Brothers back-beat you’ve ever heard combining with Tom Waits-Lite on the poetry and Darryl Hall’s third cousin on the chorus. Well, hell it was 1987, remember.
Testimony will remind you of how much of a greasy badass Ronnie Hawkins was with “Come Love” showcasing Robertson’s lead licks of course. Channeling his inner James Brown for a remix of the title track that’s equally compelling as it is infectious, we find Robertson’s vocals back in the mix. Bearing witness to as much a soul vibe as his Native American roots, it’s a sonic ying and yang that sounds ridiculous but makes for a solid groove.
You’re also gifted two perfect Dylan tracks in “Obviously Five Believers” and getting stoned with a live version of “Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35”. The cherry on top it all are the Band songs – a few live gems in rockers “The Shape I’m In” and “Life Is A Carnival”, the proverbial emotional rousing live versions “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight”, and the crown jewels being a song sketch called “Twilight” as well as a stellar garage soul version of “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart” by the fab four from Canada and the skinny little Arkansas boy as either Levon and The Hawks or the Band.
I’ve heard mixed reviews on the book, but let it be known there is no hating on any of the 18 offerings on Testimony. Say what you will about the man and his business dealings, but the bottom line is he is plainly one of the best guitarists ever and he sure can write a song, regardless of who he may credit for helping him. Being that I don’t know the man, I will maintain that Testimony is a perfect best-of collection to reiterate the mark Robbie Robertson has left on the American musical landscape. As for the controversies and smugness, God and karma can judge at the curtains closing.