Garth Hudson remembers the fallen voices of the Band: ‘We had to return to it, and go on’

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This week’s “Songs of the Band” event at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pennsylvania doesn’t just pay tribute to Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. It features in multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson one of just two surviving members of the original Band lineup, performing the songs that bolstered their well-deserved legend.

Hudson takes time out, in this Something Else! Sitdown, to remember each of them — passing along personal anecdotes that only a life-long friend could share. He also discusses another recent Band-related project: A Canadian Celebration of the Band, which featured Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, the Cowboy Junkies, the Sadies and others.

He’ll appear on Saturday, November 24, 2012, with Jimmy Vivino, Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and Sister Maud Hudson — the keyboardist’s wife of nearly 40 years. Maud was on hand for our talk, as well, egging Garth along — and filling out some of the details of their long, amazing journey together …

NICK DERISO: The recent Canadian Celebration of the Band illustrated how vibrant these songs still are, with interesting new interpretations from Neil Young, the Sadies and the Trews — who did a brilliant take on “Move to Japan,” from the Band’s 1993 release Jericho.
GARTH HUDSON: We came back to listen to the track and the drummer for the Trews started with this Newfie dockworker accent. It was really funny. I said: “Get on the mic,” and he did about 12 introductions — many of them somewhat like what you heard. But it had some cursing in there (laughs), so I had to go through the whole thing and what you eventually hear is an edited version. I would select one bit and then another. Every one of his pieces, which were introduction length — all of them were different. (Laughs.) I had to go through them all. He’s a bright lad.
MAUD HUDSON: As long as I’ve known Garth, which is 37 years, people ask him: “What are your favorite Band songs?” And he always avoided answering. (Laughs.) He never told anybody. So, this album, he’s answering that. They are the songs that Garth had the most fun with, that he enjoyed the most — whether it was for the chords and the structure of the song, or the story that it tells or the humor in it. And he didn’t match the artist to the song, because that’s their style. In fact, sometimes, he deliberately picked something that was counter to their sound. All the boys wanted to do “It Makes No Difference,” and all of the girls wanted to do “Evangeline.” (Laughs.) But that isn’t what Garth had in mind for the album.

NICK DERISO: What was it like working on those familiar songs with different musicians? I was blown away, for instance, by the new take on “Chest Fever” from Ian Thornley and Bruce Cockburn. Was there a new spark?
GARTH HUDSON: Oh, certainly. Certainly. As far as my accompaniment and solos and so on, in between these folks, I think it did spurn me onward. Hearing different interpretations like Ian Thornley, he had —
MAUD HUDSON: He came to it from such an innocent place. This album was his first exposure to it. So it was the best take.
GARTH HUDSON: Oh, yeah. He changed the phrasing. It’s a great piece of work.

NICK DERISO: Let’s talk about the voices of the Band, who you’ll be paying tribute to this week at the Keswick. How did you find a way to continue forward, after losing Richard Manuel to suicide while on tour in 1986? It must have been difficult to climb back on stage.
GARTH HUDSON: What else could we do? I would guess as far as the art of putting on a show, and gathering repertoire and presenting oneself as a solo artist — that was not fully developed when Richard passed. We had to return to it, and go on. All of it is a credit to Rick and Levon’s determination and spirit. We had families to support and also fans. I would think that fans would rather see us out there than sitting at home in rocking chairs waiting for residuals, right?

NICK DERISO: Then, in 1999, you lost Rick Danko, and that — for all intents and purposes — ended the Band.
MAUD HUDSON: It’s something we still haven’t gotten used to. It still seems like he’s going to call, or pop his head around the corner and say “hey, you gotta a minute?” (laughs), and then have so many wonderful things to say, every single day. What a positive guy. Everybody knows Rick. He has friends all over the world. No matter where you go, there are people there who are his best friends. He had almost a photographic memory, and so he could remember everything about all of these jillions of people and places. He would always help people. He’d help anyone. And he was so funny.
GARTH HUDSON: More than once I heard him say at the end of the show, after the encore: “This is a beautiful town, great people. If there are any real estate brokers here, please leave your card at the door.” (Laughs.) I used that line somewhere recently.

NICK DERISO: Finally, there’s Levon — who lost his lengthy battle with cancer this year.
MAUD HUDSON: Levon was the one of the best storytellers I’ve ever heard in my life. You could hate baseball, and by the time he got finished talking to you about it, you would love it.

NICK DERISO: Garth, you continued to perform with Helm as part of his legendary Saturday night barn dances. What are your memories of the Midnight Rambles?
GARTH HUDSON: There’s no other venue like the Ramble. You’ll hear accounts to describe the place, but it’s more than words can say. Levon and I used to drive around the Woodstock area here, looking for property. This was before we built. We would be talking about the design, with the home studio in mind. It was pretty well set in his mind what his building would be, even back then. I, of course, didn’t want anything quite that big. I had my own ideas. But we did drive around looking for ideas and locations, and he found that location for him. His is secluded. You might miss it, if you drive too fast — but it’s back there. I don’t think you’ll find another situation quite like it, unless somebody replicates it with those 50-inch beams.

NICK DERISO: I was thrilled to see Levon’s family and friends continue forward with the Rambles, and the early successes of their Keep It Goin’ foundation in support of the shows. In a way, it sounds like that was also part of his life’s work.
GARTH HUDSON: At that time, this was early 1970s when we were building, he already had the idea of the show that would be going on there. I know he had thought of TV cameras, so we could do video pieces of a group — or a concert. He had all of those concepts in place. And he just went through with it and really did an incredible thing. He left a heritage, for sure, for all of us to carry on with what we are doing.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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