By Mark T. Gould
In the late Sixties, as the carnage and madness of the Vietnam War overwhelmed American youth, the music of The Band, four Canadians and one American Southerner, provided a soothing counterpoint to the crazed, antagonistic times. With its harkening back to a simpler, more heartfelt and simpler time in Americana, The Band’s music helped many people through a dark period in America.
In 2001, following the horrible tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, could the transcendental new music of one of the three surviving Band members, Garth Hudson, provide that spirit and strength once again?
Hudson, who’s new album “The Sea to the North” (see review elsewhere in this issue) has just been released on Breeze Hill Records, contemplates the question on a chilly late September night, alone in his Woodstock studio, surrounded by the tools of his trade. On one wall sits a Yamaha piano, over which hangs a gold record for the Band’s live “Rock of Ages” album. Across the room is a Roland A-80 electric keyboard. Two saxophones, a clarinet and an accordion lie near their cases, surrounded by various cassette and reel to reel tapes holding music that spans the range from Champion Jack Dupree to Perry Como. A nearby radio plays Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” as the 64-year-old master musician looks away for a moment, then returns his gaze.
“That,” he says, smiling a bit, “would be a wonderfully positive thing to have happen.”
And, indeed, with the beauty and majesty of the new record, he can pretty much count on it. Hudson, much like The Band three decades ago, has moved, with beautiful results, against the popular musical grain. In a pop world weighted heavily with hiphop, rap and various boy and girl bands, Hudson has made a record that turns music, almost ethereally, from this world into another, combining his exquisite musicianship with his customary explorations of sound, space and time.
But, both Hudson, and his wife, Maude, whose singing, photographs and design highlight the album, stress the record is clearly aimed at family and togetherness, a cornerstone of The Band’s early music (remember the “Next of Kin” photograph on the inside of “Music From Big Pink”?), starting from the unique cover of Hudson, riding a white owl, pointing north.
“The cover is clearly symbolic, both the owl and Garth,” said Maud Hudson, Garth’s wife of 22 years. “It depicts moving forward. Garth’s the most forward thinking person I’ve ever known.
“The white owl means purity and clarity,” she said,”and Garth’s got such a pure soul. He has the most amazingly strong skills and talent. I mean, they are both, Garth and the owl, such rare birds.
“The record is a good example of family togetherness,” she continued.”It’s quite a romantic CD.”
The record, according to Hudson, is the culmination of seeing what a relatively small record company, Breeze Hill, located in Litchfield, Connecticut, about an hour south of his Woodstock home, did with a solo project from another Band member.
“The fellows down there had approached Rick (Band bassist Danko) about a record, and I saw how well he made out, and how good they were with him,” Hudson said.”I thought it could work out, and it did.
“It’s a very personal project,” said Hudson, who sings for the first time on the record.
But, how does someone like Hudson approach a solo project, after so many, many years as the musical cornerstone of a group setting?
“I approached this record just the same way,” he said, by phone after a series of post-release shows in Nova Scotia, both solo and with the Woodstock-based Cromatix, with whom he has played on and off for several years.
“I was doing the things, musically, that I have been doing for over 30 years. You just do it more intensely when it’s your own work,” he said. “I know that I have to go out and prove that I can stand up and do the songs. You’ve got to back up what you can do on a record,” he said.
Not to say, of course, that Hudson’s work, since the very early Sixties with the Band, was not intense and personal. After woodsheding in his native Canada behind Ronnie Hawkins, as the Hawks, the group went out on its own, playing shows throughout the United States, before a chance meeting with Bob Dylan, and a renowned tour of Europe, finally captured publicly on the “Royal Albert Hall 1966 ” release a year or so ago, brought them worldwide attention.
Yet, within a few years of that tour, this arguably greatest of bar bands, loud and raucous, whittled it back a bit, emerging from a lengthy hiatus in the Woodstock area with a sound unlike anything else heard at the time.
“We just sounded different, and we still do, when you listen to it.” Hudson recalled.” The voices were just so unique, and Robbie (chief songwriter and guitarist Robertson) was so crafty, such a hard worker, and very adept (as a writer) with the legal pad and pencil.”
What made the Band’s music so interesting was Hudson’s unique contribution, from the early days of relatively straight forward organ and piano work (check out “Chest Fever” from the first album and “Rag Mama Rag” from the second for some good examples), to his later incorporation of synthesizers, piccolos, soprano saxophone and other instruments and sounds that added such depth to the Band’s work, and clearly defined their music.
“What I did was add texture and variety to the music,” Hudson said.”Every song gave a clearly different choice of instruments that I could use. Usually, in the studio, I’d listen to the basic track, while the singers were being worked out, I’d add a bit here and there, work it out, and after a few takes, we’d decide what was good to add to the basic part of the song.”
Interestingly, it was Dylan who really taught Hudson how to work in a studio setting.
“He gave me the greatest lessons I ever learned about how to work in a studio,” Hudson recalled.”He would go in with us, play a new song only partway through, we wouldn’t much rehearse or much less play it all the way through to learn it, and he’d turn on the tape, and we’d get it down in a first or a second take.
“He just knew the material, he didn’t do it to death,” Hudson said,”which is a great way to do things.”
Hudson also said that, despite the commercial release of “The Basement Tapes,” in the mid Seventies, and the readily available bootlegs of a number of the songs Dylan and The Band worked on in Woodstock in the late Sixties, there may still be some works that have never seen the light of day.
“There may still be some things in there, I just have to find them,” Hudson said, with a laugh.”There’s one by Bob, called ‘Can I Get a Racehorse,’ he thought I had it (on tape) and I thought he had it. It’s there somewhere. We just need to see if we can find it.”
After playing with the members of the Band for, in some cases, over almost four decades, Hudson has an interesting perspective on the group members, and a particular fondness for two, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko, who have passed away.
“Rick was just ‘go, man, go,’ constant energy, an amazing vitality,” he recalled.”Richard was the most entertaining, sociable, peaceful person, always full of new ideas. He should have been an actor.
“Missing them, and what they meant to me and to the world, is something that I can’t express in mere words,” Hudson added.”As my friends, they were just very, very important people.
While Hudson admits that, with two original members gone; and, one, Robertson, basically retired from performing with the group, the days of the Band have passed, although he still plays with drummer Levon Helm, who, despite health problems in recent years, performs on the new album.
“Levon’s solid as a rock, always has been, always will be,” he said.”I just spoke to him a few days ago, he sounds good, and ready to go. I can always see working with him.”
But, at this point, both Garth and Maud Hudson seems content to let the legacy of The Band remain on its own, focusing on a his new solo work, and the future, all at an age when many persons, musicians or otherwise, might be content to slow it down.
“You want to be able to play and produce music that will touch younger generations,” said Maud Hudson,”just like Garth with the white owl, you want to be looking forward.”