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The World According to Garth

by Jason Schneider

From the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail, 07.09.2002. Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or redistribute.

As the quiet one from The Band, Garth Hudson has always let his music do the talking. In this rare interview, it's clear that his passion for his art remains undimmed.

WOODSTOCK, N.Y. -- The lights go down in Woodstock, N.Y.'s only movie house, the Tinker Street Cinema, and the familiar faces begin filling the screen. A warm glow spreads throughout the audience as the music icons take the stage in the 25th anniversary release of The Last Waltz,Martin Scorsese's documentary of The Band's final concert. It culminates only a few minutes later, when The Band's silent centre, Garth Hudson, steps from behind his fortress of keyboards to take his saxophone solo on It Makes No Difference and the packed house erupts in spontaneous applause.

Hudson himself is sitting at the back of the theatre, his trademark beard now gone completely white and his posture a little more arched, and accepts the accolades from his friends and neighbours in the same way his younger self accepts it on screen, with a humbleness that suggests this is merely what he was put here to do.

Garth Hudson turns 65 next month, just behind his first meaningful employer, Ronnie Hawkins, and just ahead of his second, Bob Dylan. Since The Last Waltz,he and his wife of 23 years, Maud, have moved back to Woodstock, the place where the erstwhile Hawks became The Band as they waited for Dylan to re-emerge following his 1966 motorcycle accident. Even at that point, Hudson had nearly eight years on the road under his belt; the unlikeliest of circumstances for a classically trained pianist from London, Ont.

Today, he remains committed to his singular musical vision, having recently released his first solo album, The Sea to the North,and made appearances with a wide variety of equally adventurous artists, including Marianne Faithfull and alt-rockers Mercury Rev.

While acknowledged Band-leader Robbie Robertson has risen to the top boardrooms of the music business on the back of his own myth, Hudson is the starkest of contrasts.

In his Catskills cottage with an adjacent shack/music room nestled in the thickly wooded hills just outside Woodstock, Hudson is content making music for the sheer joy of it. He is even playing again with the singer from his first band, Paul London & The Capers, for the first time in 40 years at two Ontario festivals this month -- one, a homecoming in London, and the other in his birthplace, Windsor, Ont., where he will receive the first Canada South Blues Society Award.

This recent activity has prompted Maud, who also acts as her husband's publicist, to coax Hudson into doing something he has never been known for -- giving interviews.

Hudson's perceived seclusion is not for a lack of things to say, although his slow, careful mode of speech -- think William Burroughs with long pauses -- demands close concentration on the listener's part.

We talk in the music studio, which is crammed with all sorts of instruments Hudson has mastered over the years -- an upright piano, along with a variety of electronic keyboards; saxophones, one once belonging to his idol Vido Musso of Stan Kenton's big band; and accordions of different sizes. His current obsession happens to be learning the techniques of the great Eastern European accordion players, and Hudson does not hesitate to demonstrate the progress he has made. The walls are also lined with tapes, many containing Hudson's work all the way back to Hawks shows from the early 1960s, as well as his personal collection of hot jazz radio broadcasts from the thirties and forties.

From a fan's perspective, it is indeed awe-inspiring to see Hudson's career encapsulated in this tiny room, and even more intriguing to see things like sheet music for turn-of-the-century standards and hymns, which he still relies on for practice. Yet, he also makes a point to play me some of his tape cut-up experiments, which reveal a fondness for surrealism and off-the-wall humour.

During those rare moments when Hudson is not talking about music, he is most interested to speak of the genuine love he has for his home country, something that has manifested itself in his decision to reunite with Paul London.

"Paul looked me up when we were in California," Hudson says. "I was playing with the Mike Rilley Blues Band at a place called The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. We've gotten together a few times since then, playing some old stuff and new things -- rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues. Paul still remembers the 1958/59 hit parade that we used to do. He hasn't lost any of that enthusiasm. He's basically the same guy, the way he sings."

The reunion is also clearly a result of the uncommonly open-minded attitude Hudson has toward every musical opportunity presented to him.

His lack of ego is even more obvious when he recalls his time with The Band as seemingly another part of his continuing evolution as a player. When asked his thoughts upon seeing The Last Waltz for the first time since its completion, Hudson, after some musing, replies: "I didn't think I played as well as I did. Some of the solos are better than I thought they were. When you're really participating in the music, you become hardened. Maybe part of that is because you know you can't change certain things."

Rather than dwelling on the actual experience of the concert, he speaks fondly of the recent New York City premiere, which he attended with Robertson (Richard Manuel died in 1986 and Rick Danko died in 1999; the only other surviving Band member, Levon Helm, remains bitterly estranged from the guitarist, and has called the film "a real scandal").

"The exciting part of it was the red-carpet procession, with all the photographers and cameramen," Hudson says. "I arrived at that scene with members of the Bengali Bauls [an Indian ensemble he has been working with, two of whom appeared in 1968 on the cover of Dylan's John Wesley Harding]. They were dressed in Bengal colours, so as far as I could see, I had the most colourful entourage. The only other thing I can say about the film is that this was the best promotion/publicity I could have hoped for. I could say that more eloquently, but that's it."

A statement like that cannot help but conjure up the battles that each of the Band members individually fought since that heady Thanksgiving of 1976. Hudson was not immune, having declared bankruptcy for the third time last year when faced with foreclosure on his home. As Helm recounted in his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire,Robertson successfully persuaded Hudson, Manuel and Danko to sell him their publishing rights following The Last Waltz. For his part, Hudson is reluctant to comment on any past business dealings, his prime focus being to continually hone his musical ability. His session and soundtrack work has largely kept him out of the spotlight.

Yet, he has made some incredible music, playing country swing with the late guitar virtuoso Thumbs Carlille, zydeco with Jo-El Sonnier, and of course being part of the reconstituted Band without Robertson, which lasted until Helm's bout with throat cancer and Danko's death. Lately, his gigs have been with Woodstock band The Crowmatix, who will be accompanying him at his upcoming Ontario gigs.

Hudson admitted soon after we met that he has considered moving back to Canada, but a lack of opportunities to work, in contrast to those in the United States, has been the biggest roadblock. He can count himself among the first Canadian rockers to discover that reality. In 1957 he formed what is now arguably the first professional Canadian rock 'n' roll band, The Silhouettes, which later became Paul London and The Capers. They played in ballrooms opening for Guy Lombardo-styled big bands throughout southwestern Ontario, before obtaining temporary work visas in order to play in Detroit and Chicago where they also recorded two singles.

"We'd played a couple of months before the border patrol told us to go home," Hudson says. "They told us we had to get permanent work visas, which at that time they mostly gave to hockey players and wrestlers. We told the union in Windsor about this -- they liked us and wanted to help out -- and they sent a letter to the Detroit union saying that if we weren't allowed to play, then they wouldn't allow any American acts to come into Canada. Both the unions liked Paul. The rest of us -- we were a quiet, but lively bunch."

The July reunion of The Kapers will be an attraction for fans in London, but Hudson's set will mostly be about The Sea to the North,released last year on the small, Woodstock Records label and now released in Canada on OPM/EMI. It may not be surprising that, given his predisposition to ensemble playing, it's taken this long for him to step out on his own, but Hudson revealed his own startling perspective. "I came to the realization that I had to work on the actual playing of the instruments, and that's been paying off, particularly with improvements in my left hand. In the past, a professional would get good at his instrument in his late teens, but I only started getting radically better in the last four or five years. It's been like another lifetime."

He explains that the impetus for his self-improvement came when he was offered a deal to do a solo album, but at the time he didn't feel ready. The eventual result is a wildly eclectic collection of everything Hudson is famous for; basically, every musical form popularized in the 20th century, distilled through his boundless imagination. What Glenn Gould was to classical and Oscar Peterson is to jazz, Garth Hudson surely is to rock 'n' roll. "Different musical styles are just like different languages," he says. "I'm able to play a lot of instruments so I can learn the languages. It's all country music; it just depends on what country we're talking about."

Garth Hudson plays at the Windsor International Bluesfest on Saturday, the London International Bluesfest on Sunday and Toronto's Hard Rock Café on July 15.

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