Garth Hudson, the "mad musical scientist" of The Band
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 8, 2003) – Garth Hudson was always viewed as the quiet member of The Band. He was the only one who didn’t sing, and few outside the group’s inner circle ever heard him talk. Hunched behind his Lowery organ onstage, he was the group’s “mad musical scientist,” as he was sometimes called.
But in a recent, 90-minute phone interview from his home near Woodstock, N.Y., Hudson was anything if not voluble, offering up his observations on everything from the hottest contemporary polka accordionists to obscure French Canadian jazz pianists to the differences between his original Lowery and later, transistorized models.
“There’s a fair amount of sensibility in all of this,” said Hudson, referring to the broad swaths of tangents mapped by his veering conversation. “There’s the learning method that I wish to pass on to young people so that they don’t have to spend all the time on studio procedures. There’s old technology versus new. I have made notes on all this. I have a piano method as well.”
Hudson will display that piano method – what he calls “folk piano” – on Sunday at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) at 8, when he performs in “An Intimate Evening with Garth Hudson.” The keyboardist will be joined by his wife, vocalist Maud Hudson, on several numbers, including a few tributes to Hudson’s former bandmates in what some consider to have been the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group of all time.
The Band was an outgrowth of The Hawks, a group that coalesced in Toronto around rockabilly bandleader Ronnie Hawkins in the late 1950s and early-‘60s. Later on, the Hawks would back Bob Dylan on his landmark 1966 rock tour, before re-forming as The Band in Woodstock and releasing era-defining albums like “Music at Big Pink” and “Stage Fright.”
The original five members ceased recording and performing as The Band after the 1976 celebrity-studded farewell concert, “The Last Waltz,” which became a live album and critically-acclaimed concert film directed by Martin Scorsese. Various permutations of the group continued performing and recording throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and Hudson took part in most of those efforts.
“From my seat, the communication with the other four members was free and open, and so stories and ideas evolved,” said Hudson, attempting to demystify The Band’s creative process in order to account for what made the group so terrific and so unique.
“A lot of it came from Levon’s life,” said Hudson, referring to Levon Helm, the group’s drummer and vocalist – and its only non-Canadian member – who remains a close friend and neighbor of Hudson’s in the Woodstock area.
“Levon is one of the most incredible storytellers that I’ve met,” said Hudson. “His command of the language and so on, the flow and ease with which he talks and speaks about these characters he brings to life. That’s where it came from.
“They would sit and talk. I would hear Levon and Richard talking. He’d talk about Stratford, and Rick would tell stories about his life, from Simcoe over there, closer to the tobacco belt. So all that, all these folks had great source material. That’s where The Band came from.
“I have to say that when everyone moved to Los Angeles, the streets and the alleys and the neon signs of Memphis were far behind. And the magic went away. That’s the life of The Band. It depended on stories and communications about the country and the city.”
Although some point to Hudson’s creative musicianship on organ as the defining characteristic of the group’s sound, Hudson minimizes his contribution to the ensemble, which also included chief songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson and bassist/vocalist Rick Danko.
“What they did was talk amongst themselves about ideas, musical and so on,” said Hudson. “The basic patterns Rick and Robbie would work out, Richard would work out. After a short period of time where Richard and I got into chords and inversions and sounds, he was able to come up with a piano arrangement which was excellent on its own, without any changes or prompting.
“What I did, I would come in from kind of the back door. I would come in and say something silly about what was going on, say something funny, or say something serious, or give them something which was a good solid idea. I’m talking in lumps and bunches here. My job was … I did not really sit there. I was there, but I didn’t sit with it. As The Band got rolling, they did the basic work, the groundwork, as to the chords and figures and so on.”
Hudson’s distinctive keyboard sound came partly from his background – he was the only musician of the group with formal training – and partly from his instrument. At a time when most organists were relying on the Hammond B-3 – still a popular choice, and one currently experiencing a revival – Hudson favored a Lowery Festival model.
“The Lowery had strings and reeds that were a little more brittle, closer to real strings and reeds,” he said. “It had the bend -- certain features that made it sound different than a Hammond. It’s also a little lighter to carry around. We could take the legs off and get it in the station wagon.”
Hudson’s technique was also unique. “There were tricks to it, so that it’s sometimes impossible to do some things and you’d have to use a little trickery,” he said. “I was shown various techniques that were not even used by the jazz swing players at the time. Ken Griffin, he did these long smears and three-note glissandi.”
A few years ago, Hudson released his first solo album, “The Sea to the North,” on Breeze Hill Records. The album featured five of his original compositions, instrumental pieces that evoked a panoply of influences from around the world.
For Sunday’s concert, Hudson said, “We’re doing various styles, old and new, what I would like to call ‘folk piano’ -- in other words, piano playing that has really not been notated, and has been passed on by records and according to the traditions and the styles that have evolved over the years.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 10, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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