Canadian songwriter/guitarist/cultural figure Robbie Robertson’s new album, Testimony is a trip to the primal era of rock and roll.
Robertson is a guy who “was there”, a witness and participant to epochal events (Bob Dylan’s first electric tour) and was also an unsung proto guitar hero (Come Love by Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks). And that’s before he got started.
Robertson’s album shines a light on the rootsy source of rock and roll and his own role in it. The album is a narrative of his career that also parallels a time in the early/mid period of rock and roll when it morphed into rock, showing the deep country and R&B roots of the style.
His guitar break on The Band’s live version of Life Is a Carnival is a roadmap that traces these roots of rock offhandedly, referencing blues, early country and rockabilly. It’s these casual asides that inform Robertson’s talent. After all, he smoked Eric Clapton when Clapton dropped his pick during Further On Up the Road on The Band’s epic farewell film, The Last Waltz.
He is a true gunslinger, northern style.
Robertson’s tasteful but raw playing animates Testimony and his songwriting shows his movement from R&B to rock and roll to folk and on to The Band’s fusion of roots styles to his own.
The Dylan period is referenced with brawny tracks that are rarities (a live Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35, Obviously Five Believers).
The Band’s contribution forms the heart of this album and Robertson chose live versions of classics like The Weight to show the linkage of folklore songs to the rock era, and these older songs stir the heartstrings.
Robertson knows how to create a narrative to flesh out a history, and his love for the music shows. There is epic material but it is played from the vantage point of a back porch rather than a podium.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician who reviews the latest releases in his column, Street Sounds, every Friday for The Morning Star.