Garth Hudson with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic
by Jon LynessReview of Garth Hudson's performance with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at the Studley Theatre, New Paltz, NY, May 9, 1998. Originally posted in The Band guestbook.
I had to take the bus upstate to New Paltz (1.5 hrs each way through thunderstorms, plus walking/sloshing to and from the concert hall), and was accompanied by a friend who doesn't know the Band at all -- I confess that I started to get a bit nervous that it might not be worth the trek. I've only seen Garth twice before (NYC July 4, 1996, and Carnegie Hall '97). Both times, he seemed rather restrained to me, at least compared to his performances on live tracks from the 70s or his studio tracks in the 90s. It also wasn't clear whether he would be "solo" with the orchestra, or whether he would be backing up other people. So, something of a gamble. (Incidentally, just before the show started, I noticed a couple talking to someone in front of me, and then leaving to take their seats -- it turned out to be Aaron Hurwitz (sans glasses, which threw me at first) and Marie Spinosa!)
This was one fantastic concert. It turned out that Garth did indeed play his own set with the orchestra; he was the first of the three performers to do so. After the opening act and a brief intermission, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic took their places on stage, the conductor gave a brief introduction, and Garth took the stage. He had on his trademark hat, and a huge saxophone strapped to his back. As people applauded, he tried to figure out how to get through the seated musicians to the piano behind them, and after a bit of stumbling around made it through. The conductor announced that Garth's set would be a medley of jazz tunes from the 1920s and 1930s; here's the setlist from the printed programs (since these were not introduced, and had no vocals, I can't tell you if this is actually what was played or not):
Garth's first few minutes on stage were extremely amusing. He began with a few notes on the piano, but was clearly distracted -- he was searching for certain sheet music, going through piles of paper looking for it. Finally he stopped playing altogether to ruffle through the paper, seeming not to notice that everyone was watching, and people began to (good-naturedly) laugh -- in this context, Garth quite looked like the classic "absent-minded professor". Then he finally seemed to find what he was looking for -- put the pages in front of him -- stared at them -- long pause -- and took out a colossal magnifying glass, put it in front of the pages, and peered way in at them! It brought the house down with laughter -- the conductor almost fell off the stage from laughing so hard.
Finally he really got going, and it was just mesmerizing. Imagine a 10-12-minute "Genetic Method" of jazz tunes on the piano, supported now and then by an orchestra. His playing was fantastic and riveting to watch, very bouncy and quirky, much in the spirit of those "Genetic Method" performances we're familiar with. When the philharmonic would join in, they complemented his playing beautifully -- I was really curious to what degree Garth had been responsible for the arrangements. For the first few minutes he seemed a bit nervous -- he seemed initially to be going out of his way to defer to the conductor, even shaking the conductor's hand after finishing the first short piece -- but as he got going he really seemed to start enjoying himself (judging not from his face, but from the playfulness of his music). A few times, Garth stopped playing to mutter something to the conductor, as when he did a long stretch of unaccompanied piano, then stopped, joked "couldn't get out of that one" to the conductor, and started a completely different tune.
After the piano, he switched to the accordian for about 10 minutes. He did some long, slow "washes" of sound on the accordian, swaying with the instrument. I enjoyed this part, but would say that this instrument was the least able to integrate with the philharmonic sound of the 3 he played. For most of this segment, the other musicians just watched him play, seemingly just as curious as the rest of the audience as to what exactly Garth was up to. (The songs by Kate Pierson and John Hall, the other 2 main performers that night, seemed much more tightly scripted and used the philharmonic throughout. With Garth's set, there were long stretches of him playing solo, with the philharmonic presumably waiting for certain cues to join in again.)
The last instrument he played was the saxophone, with the horn section of the philharmonic really "out in front" in sound. I think this final section was about 8-10 minutes, and I believe he was accompanied by the philharmonic the entire time. Very reminiscent of his rich saxophone arrangements and warm sound on "Back to Memphis" (High on the Hog version), with a tune that sounded somewhat like "Blues Stay Away From Me". Beautiful. This was a long jam that provided a deeply satisfying ending. (Garth did later come back on stage for the encore with Kate Pierson and John Hall, but was much more in his sideman role for their song, hunched over keyboards in the back.)
To me, it was a special night because it felt like Garth's personality really came out, in a way that it hasn't at the Band shows I've seen -- through his choice of such eclectic music, through his funny, quirky "in his own world" manner on stage, and through his incredible playing. Great show!