While I’d enjoyed the music of Robbie Robertson and The Band when it would come on the radio, it wasn’t until I found myself living in Arkansas and working for a few years with someone who was a childhood friend of The Band’s Levon Helm that I truly began to listen and appreciate it. Thanks to the coworker’s connection with Levon, I found myself focusing primarily on his vocals and incredibly limber and unique drumming style – which were and still are stellar. Somewhere along the way, though, I began to truly appreciate the craftsmanship of the songs themselves – especially the lyrics – and how the guitars always seemed to perfectly complement both the mood of the song and the timbre of whoever happened to be the lead vocalist. The Band seemed unafraid to let the voice that fit the song dictate who held the vocalist spotlight at any given moment.
More and more, though, it was the lyrics that kept me coming back for more as I dug deeper into The Band’s recordings. Turns out one band member in particular was responsible for penning some of the more memorable and lasting songs – only not the one I thought. The Band, you see, is a band that seems to rumble through the speakers in a decidedly southern way, and as there’s only one southerner in it, I’d always assumed that the words came from him and not one of the four Canadians that made up the group with him.
Boy, was I wrong. It turned out that it was indeed one of those Canadians who had penned those songs that felt so damned “southern” to me. Of course, it was his friendship with Levon Helm and his growing admiration for the way Helm spoke of The South and of his home life there, that led to Robbie Robertson channeling those stories and that love into songs like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and the sprawling southern masterpiece that is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Sadly, through the cruelty of time and mortality, The Band itself ceased to be many years ago but Robertson himself is still telling stories and spinning guitar chords through his music – most recently (until now) on 2011’s spectacular solo release, How to Become a Clairvoyant. He has now released (as of November 2016) both a new retrospective album and autobiography to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Band’s farewell concert and celebration The Last Waltz, both simply named Testimony.
Testimony the album is more a soundtrack to the book than any kind of “Greatest Hits” and yet it could easily serve either purpose, as the album’s 18 songs include some of the most recognizable music of the 20th century. Through a combination of studio and live recordings – five songs from his six solo albums and the rest a combination of a few tracks when he was a member of Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band The Hawks, Bob Dylan’s backing band, and what that backing band ultimately became, simply The Band itself – they show the growth and musicianship of not only Robertson’s playing and lyricism but also the caliber of musicians and friends he ended up making the music of his life alongside.
It’s truly a life well lived and well worth listening to on this album.
Robbie Robertson / Various Artists: Testimony
- “Testimony (Unity Mix)” – Robbie Robertson
- “Bessie Smith” – The Band
- “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” – Bob Dylan
- “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Live at the Academy of Music / 1971)” – The Band
- “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart)” – Levon & The Hawks
- “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” – Robbie Robertson
- “Life Is a Carnival (Live at the Academy of Music / 1971)” – The Band
- “It Makes No Difference” – The Band
- “The Weight (Live at the Academy of Music / 1971)” – The Band
- “Out of the Blue” – The Band
- “I’m Gonna Play the Honky Tonks” – Levon & The Hawks
- “Obviously Five Believers” – Bob Dylan
- “Soap Box Preacher” – Robbie Robertson
- “Twilight (Song Sketch)” – The Band
- “Come Love” – Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks
- “When the Night Was Young” – Robbie Robertson
- “The Shape I’m In (Live at the Academy of Music / 1971)” – The Band
- “Unbound” – Robbie Robertson