Two new single-disc anthologies by Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson might initially seem like little more than footnotes to storied careers. Yet both serve the same specific and somewhat unexpected designation of “companion” albums to autobiographies each artist published late last year. As such, both are primer sets dominated by familiar hits but colored by nuggets from formative days that set the pace for the fame that followed.
Springsteen’s “Chapter and Verse” opens with five unreleased tracks, all of which predate his 1972 debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” The first few are fairly rudimentary bar band romps, although a primal sounding cover of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” dicey as the recording quality may be, forecasts the stage fury Springsteen was already capable of.
Curiously, it’s a solo acoustic tune called “Henry Boy” that best foretells the coming of The Boss, both in its circus-like wordplay and sense of restless fantasy. That it shares so much in common with songs that would soon surface on “Asbury Park” (especially “Blinded by the Light”) is no coincidence. Still, it’s a fascinating preview of the Jersey drive that propelled Springsteen into epics like “Growin’ Up,” “Badlands” and even much later works like “Wrecking Ball” that flesh out the rest of “Chapter and Verse.”
Robertson’s “Testimony” is especially curious. While it doesn’t boast any unreleased music, the album gathers songs that stray considerably from his vanguard recordings with The Band. As such, much of “Testimony” will seem new even to ardent fans.
The scope “Testimony” covers is considerable. Three songs peel back the years to Robertson’s early ‘60s tenure with The Hawks, initially as a backup unit for Ronnie Hawkins, via the Southern fried blues and pop of “Come Love” and then with more autonomously executed tunes with Levon Helm as de facto leader. The latter entries, “I’m Gonna Play the Honky Tonks” (with a sublimely ragged vocal from Richard Manuel) and the more soul infatuated “He Don’t Love You” (with a similarly realized vocal from Rick Danko), set the stage for The Band.
After a sampling of music from The Hawks’ tutelage under Bob Dylan and then The Band’s heyday (the latter of which is highlighted by a revealing piano demo version of the forgotten “Twilight”), “Testimony” wades through Robertson’s underappreciated solo career, from the Daniel Lanois-produced “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” to the ambient chill of the album closing “Unbound.”
There you have it – two brilliant rock ‘n’ roll histories distilled into a pair of 70-plus minute retrospectives. While both luxuriate in the hits, the albums’ exploration of career corners well outside the spotlight reveal intentions that, despite the obvious marketing plans, hardly go by the book.