on The Band, The Woodstock All Stars & The Crowmatix
by Lee GabitesThis interview was conducted on May 5, 1997. Randy later supplied some additional information that is included as a postscript to the interview. The article was first published in the Band fanzine Jawbone, issue no. 4 spring/summer 1997. Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © Lee Gabites 1997
OK. You want a little history on how we got hooked up with The Band. 1986, Jimmy was playing in The Band already, I guess he got in around '84. About '86 they were off the road for a little while and we had this house job just outside of Woodstock, Levon came down to sit in with us and it worked out pretty good so he kind of asked me to join his travelling band.
Which was the Woodstock All Stars.
Yeah, that's right. We had Stan Szelest playing and Paul Branin was playing sax and guitar, a great player. Frank Campbell was playing bass, Jimmy was playing guitar and I was playing drums. We also had Cindy Cashdollar (dobro) she's working with Asleep At The Wheel, and Larry Packer (fiddle) was in the band. Larry had done some playing at The Last Waltz and he had been an associate of the fellas throughout the years. As we progressed we just turned into a five piece band, Larry and Cindy had left the group. And at that particular time we travelled all over. We did some scores for movies, did some commercials, we worked pretty much throughout the United States.I know you did some recording for Staying Together.
We tracked about four or five songs for that movie and three or four of them made the record, and three or four of them made the movie, plus, we were in that movie as Levon's back up band. We stayed with that configuration for a few years and then Levon and Rick got the gig with Ringo, and they kind of split and we continued around town in our own bands.Didn't you have something going with Joe Flood?
Yeah, Joe Flood. I think around the time that the Woodstock All Stars were on sabbatical because Levon was with Ringo, we hooked up with Joe Flood and a bass player, Jerry... I can't remember what Jerry's last name was but he was a really good bass player and a really good singer. We did some dates around New York, I think we even hung out with Joan Osborne. She came up to Woodstock and I think we were going to back her up for a little while. This is way before she hooked up with what she's got going now. And that was just another one of those situations that we were involved with and Joe Flood is a really good songwriter and a really good singer. That was another one of my favorite bands, a completely original band with some real good players in it. We really got into that R&B vein.Was it during the Sony sessions in 1990 that you became a member of The Band?
Yeah, yeah they started doing that stuff for Sony and Levon said, 'Son, come on down.' Those guys had been on the road for a little bit and been trying to cut the tracks, keep the cash flow going plus just keep the playing thing happening. I guess Levon wanted to start branching out a little bit and get involved with the mandolin and the harp, play some bass and some rhythm guitar and what have you. He wanted to put me on board to play the drums so that he could breakaway and do that kind of stuff. I think that was probably the original reason why I got in in the first place. So I jumped on board in 1990. Stan Szelest was in the band, Jimmy was still in the band and myself. I think Sredni Vollmer was in that configuration. Sred' was in on that too because Sred' had been playing with Rick on his solo shows, so I guess Rick figured lets bring Sred' on board and see how that works out. And that worked out great, that was fine. Sred' plays good harp and he sang some backgrounds and we did about a couple of weeks in that configuration. We went out west, Las Vegas, we did a little tour. We came back and the fellas continued to work on the Sony tracks, and then this kind of fizzled out. You would have to get the information from them, I really don't want to talk about what happend with that thing, but it fizzled out for one reason or another. And then they cut the roster down to just six fellas. Sredni went his own way. And as we kept going... I had always been singing, I'd always sang in bands and I'm not much of a singer. I usually got in bands that nobody else could sing, so I just started doing it. I started picking harmonies out of the blue with these fellas and working on some parallel harmonies. Rick Danko's a real master at that kind of thing, he's one of the greatest that I've ever been around. He's amazing! He started helping me a real lot, giving me parts to sing... so, anyway, as it worked out we started blending in OK. Of course, we were nowhere near as having the Richard Manuel situation.You've really filled that sound that they didn't have when they lost Richard.
Pretty much. I kind of filled it up a little bit. We were able to at least fill a chord out and get some parallel harmonies going. Rick just sings such weird melodies. For him a harmony is just any melody. I was fortunate enough to be able to hear him because I had been doing that kind of stuff for so many years. I had been on the road with Eric Andersen for five or six years and did a couple of records with him.What year did you start working with Eric?
What happened with Eric was maybe '77 or '78. I was working in a jazz band back home here called Tillson Rhythm Machine. I really hated to leave that band, it was a real good band. But, you know, Eric was paying some real money. I liked Eric, he was a real good songwriter and he taught me a lot of stuff. A couple of good buddies of mine were in that band, Artie Funnaro and Joe Lomoriellio. I did an audition for them and got the gig.Tell me About Tillson Rhythm Machine.
It was a little bit of a straight-ahead band, it was more like early fusion stuff. We had started formulating our ideas from the Miles Davis Bitches Brew kind of stuff. It wasn't so much a bebop band as it was what they had started calling contemporary jazz at that time. I mean, we played some straightahead bebop stuff, but I think we were more funk players than R&B players with jazz shadings than anything else. Anyway, back to Eric. We did a bunch of touring with him, a lot of playing, and then he got a record deal in 1980. I think it was a Sony record deal, Sony/Scandinavia. And I went over and did the Midnight Sun record. I did his next record too. We did all the tracks for that record, we did a lot of... we helped him a lot with the songwriting on it. And then that particular record came out with other people playing those songs. I think we may have worked on some of them tunes, some of the tracks that we worked on might have made his next record. I left his band. I'd had my fill of being on the road, not my fill of Eric or any of those guys - I really love those guys. I do that periodically. I just get real crazy about being away from home so I end up coming back, put myself in the woods and get in the shed for a year or so. Unfortunately, I had to do that with Eric. I told him I'd had enough and that I'm going to go back in the woods and hang out. So that band stayed together for a little while longer and then I think Eric moved to Norway and continued on a solo career. So, when I got in The Band in 1990, I started playing and singing some backgrounds and it's kind of been working out OK, and it's been blending pretty good on stage. I could never understand why they even wanted me to sing in this thing because like I told you before - I'm not much of a singer.I've heard you sing "Chest Fever" a few times.
Yeah, that seems to be up my alley a little bit. I always loved that song and it's one of my favorite songs from when I heard the fellas first come out with it. I always wanted to make an R&B song out of it, and to me it is an R&B song so I guess I may have taken that approach to it. Luckily, with Rick and Levon singing with me on stage... that's always best for me when a couple of fellas or girls and guys are all singing together and then we can all get a nice ring to our voice, so to speak. That's pretty much how that's developed and we've been trying to develop it ever since.Do you think the new album will be acoustic?
I think it will be. I don't think it will be totally acoustic, but some of it will be acoustic. I think the fellas have got a lot of experience with acoustic music. Rick's shows are eighty percent acoustic. Levon and Rick, when The Band split up the first time were going out doing acoustic shows together, they play mandolin, upright basses, acoustic guitars and all that stuff. They're really versed in it and I think it's probably a very strong vehicle for those guys. We don't have to play so loud and there's no booming electric stuff on stage. Before we did... I don't know, we didn't pull it off so hot when we played the Dylan show, but the rehearsals for the Dylan show, when we did "Masterpiece". We sat in Levon's studio in a circle and played about fifteen songs acoustically. I mean, they wanted us to play "Masterpiece", but once we'd learned that we just kept going. We could hear each other sing and we could hear each other play, and we wasn't counting on a monitor guy or a boomy room or anything like that. Not to take anything away from the engineers. You get in those situations and sometimes you can't hear and you can't listen to your partner when your playing. And that's a drag, but you still want to give the people a show so you play your part. With the acoustic thing we can play off each other and we can hear each other so we can make those vocals really ring. Rick Danko's always talking about 'Yeah guys we can sing in pitch, but we got to make it ring.' I never thought about that until he started beating me over the head with it. It's really true, man. You can really tell when something is ringing and when your just sorta singing in pitch, academically singing or you've really got the soul of the melody happening. I think when The Band play their acoustic set they can pull that off, especially now in 1997. So, that's really kind of high on the priority list.It may take a long time arranging microphones, but to record live acoustically would sound really nice.
Yeah, plus Levon's room is really a great sounding room. It's a posted beam construction and it's all native hemlock, it's three storeys and there's stone in there and wooden floors. It's the most amazing sound out of all the great studios that we have in Woodstock, and we've got some really great studios. I mean, Bearsville Studio A is legendary, but Levon's studio is a really warm organic sounding room. Everytime your done cutting a track in that room you really know you've cut a track in upstate New York in the mountains. It's really amazing. So I think the acoustic thing is gonna work out great, and if they can film it, because he also built that studio with filming in mind, put bleachers up and such. Hopefully, Capitol Records or whatever record company comes on board will honor his vision and put this thing together. The Band has some great plans. Aaron Hurwitz has helped develop a really good plan for everybody, most of it is Levon's ideas, Aaron just sort of put it together and made it a reality on paper. I can see it in my head, I can visualize it. I know it's going to work if they just come on and help us out. We'll do a couple of new pieces and the record will probably be acoustic and some of it will be electric. I don't even know if that stuff is contemporary, I just know it works for The Band. Unplugged! I don't even know if they still do Unplugged, I guess they do.I don't know if they do it so often now, but when that format was really happening I couldn't understand why The Band haven't done it, as their one of the groups that could really do it justice.
Yeah, you're right. Those boys can really do that and we can do it too. I hope it happens.Can you tell me about the sessions for the Tom Pacheco album?
Yeah, Jimmy took that record. I guess Tom got hold of him and we went in and worked on some of those songs. I had fun. Richard Bell and Jimmy, and we got a great bass player in town here named Rob Leon who's playing with Rory Block. He's done a bunch of things. In fact, I had gotten Rob the gig with Eric Andersen right after the Midnight Sun record and Rob came to Europe with us. So Rob was in Eric's band for a few years. Rob was also in the Rick Danko/Paul Butterfield Band for a few years. He's a great guitar player too, a good all round vibe great musician. He's even a good drummer. One of those kind of guys.He's a local musician.
Oh yeah, he's one of the local boys. He's originally from the South Bronx, but we all spent time down in the South Bronx, up in the latin community and the black community. I lived up there for three or four years. I studied with Frankie Malabe, the great Puerto Ricon congero. And I worked with some of the Cuban guys up there. I was in Guilherme Franco's brazillian band also, while I lived in New York. I was really studying and hanging in that bloodline, and that was sort of my favorite kind of music at the time. I figured you had to get right on the street there to learn it. And Rob is from those neck of the woods also so he brings that kind of flavour to everything he plays. Of course, he can conform to whatever musical idiom he has to play. He's really coming from the latino funk jazz situation.How did the Levon Helm & The Crowmatix shows go?
The shows with Levon went pretty good. We played in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Iron Horse, which we'd played with the Woodstock All Stars in '86/7 and it was a real small coffeehouse. They've made it a little bigger now and it's got a stage and a real good sound system. We always did pretty good up in the northeast of the United States. We played a good show and the people were happy to see Levon. We had a really tight show rehearsed and everybody sings, so we sang a lot of backgrounds, everybody did a song and he did all his blues tunes. We rounded it out into a nice hour, hour and half show. We played "Forty Days & Forty Nights", the Muddy Waters cut. And Levon, man, he come from the delta so he's like a real traditional blues guy. The Woodstock All Stars used to play at the King Biscuit and the blues festivals every year. We picked up a lot of inspiration from the whole area and I've been locked into it since I've been hanging with him. At the Iron Horse show we did stuff from that first record he did with the RCO All Stars. Boy, that's a great record.When were The Crowmatix first established?
The Crowmatix were first established about twenty five years ago (laughs). Bass player Mike Dunn and guitar player Jimmy Eppard are homeboys of mine from upstate New York and we originally had a band together about twenty years ago called The Crows, with that fella Paul Branin (Woodstock All Stars). We weren't much of songwriters so we only got to a certain level. We were into picking off real obscure R&B songs that we thought people would never hear of. We learned how to play all that stuff by woodshedding it. We had that band together and played for a long time. When I got the gig with Eric Andersen I had to bail out on them, and when I got the gig with Levon and then The Band I had to bail out on them. Three or four times I've had to leave the nest, so to speak. And The Crows continued on without me. They would get drummers to play, there are so many great drummers around here that you can leave and somebody would just fit right in. So we had that band together and I always had those guys in mind every minute that I had off work. Then Paul Branin split, he went to Oakland to play in organ trios and he really started getting into woodshedding with his jazz stuff. He's an amazing player and he's out in Oakland now.And he plays accordion and piano.
Yeah, he plays the B3 now. We've been carrying the B3 around. Maria Spinosa, a real good singer and Aaron "Louie" we got on board. We brought Paul Branin in and Jimmy Weider came in and we put on this big show in town. It was a two to three hour show and we learned all Levon's songs from his records and played some Band tunes. Fortunately, everyone in this situation could sing, so we took one tune each which gave us seven or eight songs plus all of Levon's stuff. It was pretty much big fun and Levon always wanted to do that again.
But The Band got real busy with the Jericho record and the Jericho tour, and then the High on the Hog situation came up. So, from '93 to '97 we got pretty busy and never got the chance to do the Crows or the Crowmatix, whatever you want to call them. Levon always spoke very highly of the group. Everytime he did an interview he would mention us, I think he was trying to give me and Aaron a blow, a little pat on the back so people would know we had something else going on.Have The Crowmatix been recording?
We've got about eighteen or twenty songs that we've tracked, a bunch that we wrote and a couple of other ones. I love playing in The Band, man, 'coz people send... we got a whole truck load of tapes from songwriters all over the world and we sit around and we review just about every tape that comes in. And I tell you, eighty percent of the tapes are really great. Out of every fifty or sixty tapes something will hit me over the head that I can't stop thinking about and I'll just file them away. If The Band doesn't use the piece for whatever reason, then I'll use the piece. We've tracked two or three like that and written a bunch of them. We're over at Levon's camped out in his studio, so we setup our studio there and started tracking. I think what we want to do on this first Crowmatix album is everything that we did in that particular time period we'll use for the first album. We're all tracking now, but I don't know, the vibe is a little different and we are playing a little different so we are going to try and keep a consistency with our music. The record that you've heard about is completed. Aaron is in the studio mixing, I think he's got three or four more mixes to go and then what we'll do is put that record out.Is there a release date or record company for this cd?
We don't have a release date because it's going to be on Woodstock Records. We're going to start are own record company. I think that's the best way for us to go because we'll be in full control. We'll have artistic control and financial, and if some major record company or some smaller company wants to come along and help us out with distribution, then that's fine. We have people that really want to help us out, so when Aaron and the rest of us are happy with the mixes we'll pursue that situation. And if we can get somebody to help us with distribution we will, if not, we'll do it ourselves.Tell me about the recent recording of "Java Blues".
The Crowmatix went in and we cut a half acoustic and a half electric version of "Java Blues", with Levon playing rhythm guitar and the rest of the Crowmatix backing him up. It was big fun. We went in one night and spent about four hours and got some halfway decent sounds down at NRS Studio in West Hurley, Scott Petito's place. He's a good friend of ours, Scotty. We sat there for three or four hours and we found one of the tracks that we thought would work good. We did slow versions, brazillian versions, we did an R&B version. I think if Levon gives us the OK, we'll put that on the Crowmatix record. On the Crowmatix record we have Garth Hudson playing on one song, he did a great job on a Junior Parker song. We brought Garth in to arrange the horns for us and he did a wonderful job. I'll tell you, he puts that stuff right back in the forties and fifties. He gives you that rootsy Clifford Scott sound. We've got just about everybody in The Band on one.I'a looking forward to hearing this.
Well, it came out OK. The band is evolving as we go and our next batch of tunes will be different. I don't know whether they'll be better or worse. This batch of tunes that we have now is OK.
PostscriptThe following information includes artists/groups that Randy was involved with before joining The Band:
The song written by Randy and Jim Weider for the Chicago Bulls cd is getting air play on radio stations in Chicago. The tune is "Da Bulls. and the band is called Jimmy Da Randy.
Copyright © Lee Gabites 1997