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Burrito Grande

by Buddy Blue

From the The San Diego Union Tribune, December 9, 2004.
Copyright © 2004, 2005 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

Garth Hudson brings his latest group to Normal Heights. 'We have a good time when we go out to play'

Garth Hudson ranks among the most respected, influential and certainly most eccentric figures in rock 'n' roll. How eccentric? Well, just for starters, our lengthy phone conversation was conducted during the late night-early morning hours, at his request. We didn't hang up until nearly 2 a.m., which was fine by me: There are worse ways one could spend a sleepless night than picking the brain of a man widely considered an enigmatic genius.

Appearing on stage as a grizzled figure from the Old West, with his impossibly deep-set eyes and untamed, Gabby Hayes beard; speaking in the oddly measured, august cadence of a 19th-century scholar; playing keyboards with a distinctive style that sounds as if his soul has a direct link to the mysteries of the cosmos, Hudson is a singular presence, both personally and musically.

Best-known as the standout virtuoso of pioneering roots-rock group the Band, Hudson's long and abundant career goes back to the rockabilly era and continues prolifically to the present day.

Among recent activities, Hudson played on Norah Jones' breakout "Come Away With Me" album, he performs duets with his wife, blues-jazz vocalist Maud Hudson, and is a member of Burrito Deluxe, which appears Saturday night at the Acoustic Music San Diego series.

Burrito Deluxe is something of a supergroup in its own right. Hudson's bandmates include pedal-steel legend/Flying Burrito Brothers founding member Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Amazing Rhythm Aces bassist Jeff Davis, Nashville session drummer Rick Lonow and singer-guitarist Carlton Moody, scion of bluegrass fiddle patriarch Dwight Moody and member of the Moody Brothers, along with siblings David and Trent.

"Pete and I go way back, so it's always good to see Pete again, but it's a special privilege to play with Carlton Moody, who is a very fine singer and excellent guitar player," Hudson says. "He has the real North Carolina sound in his vocals. The other gentlemen in the group are also very competent Nashville players. It's a group effort and we have a good time when we go out to play. It's good to experience the unity."

Burrito Deluxe is a warm, down-to-earth country group, emphasizing mood, melody and song over chops and heat. Unlike the Band, the group gives short shrift to soloing, which is a bit of a shame, as Hudson's all-too-brief excursions at the fore are a tease for those expecting more generous helpings of his idiosyncratic grandeur.

Hudson was born in 1937 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He had an extensive early background studying classical music, but found himself drawn to rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. In 1961, he joined Canadian rockabilly hitmakers Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks ("Mary Lou," "Forty Days"), where he first played with his future partners in the Band -- Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

"There couldn't be a better platoon leader than Ronnie; he's just great, you know. Captivating, entertaining and wild at the same time," Hudson recalls of his days under the notoriously rowdy Hawkins' wing.

In 1963, the group split with Hawkins to become its own entity as Levon & the Hawks. A boxed set of previously unissued Hawks recordings -- both with and without Hawkins -- will be released next year.

"Tapes have been gathered from attics and basements from Southern Ontario to Oklahoma, live and some studio things," Hudson says. "This boxed set was put together by CBC archivist Jan Haust. I think he even included some things I did in the late '50s with (pre-Hawks Hudson group) the Capers."

Famously, the Hawks eventually hooked up with Bob Dylan, supporting his first, controversial electric concerts, where throngs of pious folkies routinely jeered Dylan as a rock 'n' roll heretic.

"Bob encouraged us to believe that we could write our own songs," notes Hudson. "Watching him sitting at his typewriter and working was an inspiration. We knew soon after we got with him that our association would be acknowledged in rock history. The thought first occurred after our first concert together, when they booed us!"

The Hawks were rechristened the Band in 1968, and released several albums that remain universally acknowledged classics . including "Music From Big Pink," "The Band," "Stage Fright" and "Rock of Ages." The group's earthy sound and sensibility had a huge impact on everyone from such contemporaries as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (both readily acknowledged the Band's sway in getting them to tone down on psychedelic excesses and get back to where they once belonged) to the alt-country movement of the present day.

"It wasn't long before we were relatively well-known," Hudson recalls. "We didn't have any Top 10 hits or anything, but we certainly seem to have had an influence."

Sadly, the Band spilt acrimoniously following its 1976 "Last Waltz" concert extravaganza, filmed for posterity by Martin Scorsese. A bitter rift between Robertson and the rest of the group developed, detailed in Helm's autobiography, "This Wheel's on Fire." There were reunion tours and albums sans Robertson through the 1990s, but the Band's moment in the sun had passed. For his part, Hudson doesn't seem to harbor any hard feelings, although the towering legacy of the Band remains inescapable.

"Maud and I do a couple numbers as a tribute to Rick, Richard and Levon (Danko passed away a few years ago; Manuel committed suicide prior to that; Helm suffered a bout of throat cancer and can no longer sing), but I do make an effort to avoid nostalgia, to play the least number of Band tunes," says Hudson. "I moved on from it. I'm not concerned with it."

When discussing music, the professorly Hudson engages in lengthy, rambling discourses that border amusingly on the obsessive, spelling out the names of his favorite performers and even words he fears might fly above my obviously limited vocabulary. Lately, Hudson has developed a passion for polkas.

"I make tapes from WKVR on Poughkeepsie," he says. "It's the station from Vassar College, and they have a show called 'The Polka Rascal Show.' I probably have 100 or more tapes, and I have logged them with counter-numbers, name of group, name of song. I do this looking for repertoire on accordion and I transcribe them. I've logged 340 polkas, waltzes and obereks. I find it fascinating. I've found my heroes; these are amazing, fearless players."

When plied for anecdotes on the noteworthy musicians he's worked with over the years (that list comprises several pages; suffice it to say few can boast of a more extensive resume), Hudson more extensively and enthusiastically details the gear and studios he utilized than the actual people with whom he worked.

While Hudson credits his famous Lowery Festival organ and Leslie 145 speaker cabinet as the most important components used to arrive at his signature sound, he allows that consistently working to improve one's musicianship also remains essential.

"A style can be learned, a style can be taught, and yes, I do have a method of improving my own style," he says. "I advocate the development of certain exercises to substantiate your own stylistic tendencies. I say to the young player, yes, copy and imitate, because it's not going to wind up sounding like your mentors and affinities. This is a reoccurring theme in the classroom of my entertainment."

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