Garth Hudson

It's a matter
of hearing the chords

A talk with brilliant musician
Garth Hudson of The Band

By John Orr
May 2002

An example of how it can be great to be an entertainment journalist:

On the last Saturday night in April, a little before midnight, California time, Garth Hudson -- the true genius keyboards and saxophone player of The Band -- played piano just for me, and for his wife Maud, who was near the piano.

It was a tune he had written called ''The Sea to the North,'' and it was beautiful. In fact, I like the piano version, wherein he does amazing things with time and notes with just two hands, more than the organ version on his new album of that name.

It's still beautiful and fascinating on the album, mind you.

True, he was thousands of miles away, in his home on a mountain near Woodstock, New York, but even over the phone it was a wonderful experience for me, here in the Bay Area.

The Hudsons are night people, playing music and making art at night, then enjoying the Catskills sunrise each day before going to bed. It was almost 3 a.m. in New York, and more than an hour into our conversation, when Garth played the piano.

He apologized about making a mistake in the middle section and for dropping the phone, but it still sounded great and was a fabulous experience for music-lover me.

The more than two hours the Hudsons spent on the phone with me happened because of the release of ''The Last Waltz'' on DVD and in a new CDs set, and because of the release of Hudson's first solo CD, ''The Sea to the North.''

The Last Waltz
Click here for a review of the DVD and the CDs.

On a commentary track for ''The Last Waltz,'' Hudson's old boss, Ronnie Hawkins, talks about hiring Hudson back in the late '50s. ''Garth told me not to use the word weird ... but he can hear stuff that none of us ever heard.''

''Ronnie didn't hire me because I was weird,'' Hudson responds. ''I think it had to do with chords ... chord changes.''

''We were doing 'Stardust' with about three chords before Garth came in,'' said Hawkins, ''Then he put about 17 more in. That's the difference in hearing.''

And, the difference in education. Hudson was the only person with formal music training in that band, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks -- the group that was eventually to leave Hawkins and become The Band.

Hudson is enormously intelligent, with a droll humor that is sometimes expressed in long, slow, verbal expositions that some people would, in fact, consider, well, weird.

For instance: Talking about his enormous collection of cassettes. ''Cassettes of America popular music, mostly a few little things, of other kinds of music, collections people have sent me, cassettes of the folks I've worked with, cassettes of frogs. Through all of this I spot things that I think are vital; in other words, what could be tapes, two bars, four bars or eight bars or 12 bars, and played to some young person to demonstrate a little gem of America music.''

He had much more to say about cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, lists of sounds, compilations and people to whom they might be given and it all made sense, because he is a brilliant musician to whom everything he hears might be of use in a song; because he has a deep dulcet voice that he uses as an instrument in conversation, enjoying hearing himself repeat words; and because he was being droll.

People who are that intelligent and droll often restrain their drollness, because they get tired of being stared at. But, Hudson is obviously comfortable with who he is, his wife Maud adores him and says he is the most amusing person she's ever met, and besides, I was 3,068 miles away and he had no means to know if I was staring or not.

I was, actually, grinning and having a great time.

Hudson has a singular style of conversation wherein he will add in verbal modifiers one at a time as they occur to him, but repeating the entire string each time he seemingly thinks of another adjective or adverb. Such as, while talking about music he has been thinking about recently: ''I have a study of jump music ... which we will call for the moment ... small horn band ... urban small horn band ... urban small horn band jump ... urban small horn band jump swing blues ...''

''Like Louis Jordan?'' I asked.

''Yes,'' he said, sounding a bit startled. I explained I had just been learning to play a Fleecie Moore tune that Jordan had recorded in 1945, ''Caldonia,'' which, in fact, The Band had also recorded, more than once. But I especially liked the Albert Collins version.

''Albert Collins?'' Hudson said. ''I am going to run to the washroom. Maud will tell you a story about Albert Collins.''

And she did, charmingly. She had toured with Collins as a back-up singer. when she was in her early 20s.

When he returned from the washroom and from looking for a black bear that may have been on the porch, he treated me to an extended discussion of preparing for the Left-Hand Olympics, wherein many great pianists, including fellows who had spent 22 years playing in bars, would meet in a boxing arena to fight it out with stride piano playing. Eventually he admitted that such an event was in the realm of imagination, but the sort of thinking that encourages him to keep working at music. More drollery.

There is a tasty sample of Hudson's humor in one of the audio commentary tracks of ''The Last Waltz.'' It occurs during one of the MGM studio shots, when Hudson is playing a beautiful old accordian that was later stolen from him.

''Hudson: I remember Muddy Waters calling me 'Squeeze.' At the time I didn't like it too well. But, uh, I've become toughened up to the bad accordian jokes. Like, uh, what is the difference between an accordian and an onion? People usually cry when you cut up an onion. Uhm, what is the difference between an accordian and a trampoline? Folks take their boots off before they jump on a trampoline. And there are a 174 or more in "The Canonical Book of Bad Accordian Jokes.'''

The accordian jokes? Goofy. ''The Canonical Book of Bad Accordian Jokes''? Droll.