Something Else! Interview: Garth Hudson, co-founding member of the Band

For Garth Hudson, next month’s gala “Songs of the Band” event at Pennsylvania’s Keswick Theatre is another chance to remember the group’s departed fellow co-founding members — Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm.

Or, more particularly, to celebrate them: That was the goal of his recent multi-artist release A Canadian Celebration of the Band (featuring Neil Young, the Sadies, Bruce Cockburn and Cowboy Junkies), and this latest event is no different. Hudson will be joined on November 24, 2012, by Jimmy Vivino, who shared the stage for Hudson’s final appearance with Helm during one of the drummer’s legendary Midnight Rambles.

The bill will feature former members of the 1980s- and 1990s-era lineups of the Band, formed in the wake of founding guitarist Robbie Robertson’s departure, as well as Levon Helm’s solo group — including Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and Byron Isaacs. Also appearing is Sister Maud Hudson, Garth’s wife and constant companion for nearly four decades. She joined in on this SER Sitdown too, creating a homey atmosphere that found Garth on one phone extension and Maud on the other. After so long together, they quite literally complete each other’s sentences.

In keeping, the conversion often resembled a talk around a kitchen table, swerving away from music into matters big and small. (At one point, Maud pointed out an insect skittering around their 1880s-era country farmhouse in upstate New York, thinking at first it was a bumblebee: “It’s actually what you call a plant bug,” Garth says. Maud reminds: “Garth’s grew up interested in that; his dad was an entomologist,” even as Hudson continues examining the insect.) Throughout, the native Canadian quietly ruminated on an array of his instruments.

It was that kind of conversation …

NICK DERISO: The Band’s first few albums — a focus of this upcoming Pennsylvania show — seemed to come out of nowhere in the late 1960s, cutting right through the psychedelia and acid rock of the day. How did you arrive at that fascinating amalgam of sounds?
GARTH HUDSON: The basics of it included rockabilly, and that gradually changed when Robbie came in the group. Then you start to hear more of the Delta guitar players, like B.B King. Robbie was instrumental in changing us from rockabilly to rock blues. Richard and I got our education from (legendary early rock n’ roll DJ) Alan Freed, because we were closer to Cleveland. Over there in the east, where Rick and Robbie came from, they picked up “The Hound” from Buffalo. We were tutored by different radio announcers.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A new film explores one of rock's most interesting intersections -- the nearly decade-long collaboration between Bob Dylan and the Band.]

NICK DERISO: Together, you created something that hadn’t been made before. They call it “Americana” these days. But back then, it didn’t even have a name — much less a radio format.
GARTH HUDSON: At first, we played what you would call cover material, but the very best that could be found — from Delta blues through the guitar and harmonica tradition and up through the uptown players. I think that puts it briefly. Richard admired Bobby “Blue” Bland as a singer, for example, and Ray Charles. We had all our sources. I admired Charles Brown as a singer and piano player. He was very smooth. I found out later on that he played stride and pop songs, or “AABA” songs, very well and had a considerable repertoire. As you think back, during the period he was playing, Nat Cole was also playing. Remember that Nat Cole took the guitar player that was playing with Charles Brown – Oscar Moore. So, there was overlap. All of it blended together.

NICK DERISO: How did you discover an interest in music?
GARTH HUDSON: The basement had a darkroom, where my dad did his photography. I would go down there, and eventually I put a radio in with a copper wire. I drilled a hole through the floor of my bedroom and out into the back porch — and that was the aerial. I was picking up Alan Freed, when I was about 14 or 15. Suddenly, I realized that somebody over there who was having lot more fun than I was! Richard Manuel and myself got all of our R&B education from across the water. I would go down and listen to “Moondog Matinee.” That’s a bit of rock ‘n’ roll history, and it emphasizes how important radio announcers were.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEW: A highlight of Garth Hudson's recent 'Canadian Celebration of the Band' was a new take on "This Wheel's On Fire" recorded with Neil Young and the Sadies.]

NICK DERISO: What led you to the organ?
MAUD HUDSON: You helped your dad with a project, right?
GARTH HUDSON: He started buying these pump organs. We had one in the living room, and one on the back porch and one in the cottage on the north shore of Lake Erie. I did the wood working, the metal work, learned how to use tools. I still have 14 or 15 of those screwdrivers. You had to glue all of it back together. There were were wooden pieces that were broken out, and it had dirt in the reeds. You had to take each reed out, and clean it off, and then put it back in.

NICK DERISO: By the time of the Band recordings, you had begun using a Lowrey. It gave your music such a distinctive feel, primarily because the Hammond B3, at that point, was standard.
GARTH HUDSON: Early on, it was all on the Lowrey FL, then later on the Lincolnwood, and then the big one — the H25. All of the textures and so on are from Lowreys. I’ve tried to describe why a Lowrey fit right in with our guitar work, and the singing — it complements the voices. One reason for using an organ other than the Hammond is that the Lowrey has a wider harmonic structure. It has, I think, 27 different harmonics at various levels to get a sound, while the Hammond has eight or nine. A Hammond always sounds like a Hammond. And of course, the Jimmy Smith sound — that percussive sound — it’s obvious when you hear that this is a Hammond organ. The newer digital organs that have the Hammond name on them, a friend of mine told me they sound very close — almost like a digital clone, but I don’t know. The Lowrey was always a lot more interesting to me.

NICK DERISO: Of course, “Chest Fever” became a clinic on the Lowrey’s versatility and power.
GARTH HUDSON: I know I stole something from J.S. Bach there. But we needn’t mention that, right? (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: The Philadelphia concert marks the 36th anniversary of the Band’s “The Last Waltz,” but that wasn’t the end of things — at least not for you, Richard, Rick and Levon, who reformed as the Band and continued in one form or another through 1999. Did you feel there was still unfinished business?
GARTH HUDSON: We never broke up. Each member just ended up doing their own recordings for a while. Rick did an album with Clive Davis, and Levon had the RKO All Stars. I met Thumbs Carllile, played many times in the valley in L.A., and worked with Jo-El Sonnier, a great singer and player from Bogalusa, Louisiana. He’s a guy who can go to any country and represent his music with dignity and finesse — even though he spoke in a broken language.
MAUD HUDSON: He was pure.
GARTH HUDSON: He still calls every once in a while.

[REMEMBERING LEVON HELM: We celebrate the late Levon Helm's stirring legacy both as a solo artist and as the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band.]

NICK DERISO: The show will also find you rekindling a legendary night from Levon’s Midnight Rambles alongside Jimmy Vivino.
GARTH HUDSON: We call him “maestro.”
MAUD HUDSON: This is the same cast of characters, the same lovely guys from that Ramble. The Keswick show will be all Band songs. That’s not a typical Garth Hudson show. Even though our shows have several Band songs in them, they center a lot more on his own compositions and also some other cover tunes that aren’t on Band albums. At the Keswick, it will center on the first four Band albums — and The Basement Tapes.
GARTH HUDSON: Yes, we know the material. (Laughs uproariously.) We’ve got the material down.

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For more information on tickets for ‘Songs of The Band,’ performed by Jimmy Vivino and founding member Garth Hudson at the Keswick Theatre, in Glenside, Pennsylvania, go to http://www.ticketmaster.com/Keswick-Theatre-tickets-Glenside/venue/352270.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Phil Aaberg

    Hey Nick,
    Thanks for giving us more of the most brilliant keyboardist in rock history!
    All the best,
    Phil Aaberg