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Garth Hudson: The Sea to The North

CD (Breeze Hill 0011-2) (2001)
Produced by Aaron L. Hurwitz & Garth Hudson

[Peter Viney]

Immediate impressions by Peter Viney

[CD cover]
I think that every fan of The Band was waiting for the big one. We all knew Robbie's ability to evoke America. Somewhere Down The Crazy River proved it. Storyville put the seal on. We knew that Levon could give us the solid heart of it, witness all his work over the last 25 years. We knew Rick as the pure singer from the very soul that he proved to be. Sadly, we never got to hear Richard Manuel singing like a bird solo. So we were all waiting for Garth's solo album. What would the musical genius and centre of The Band produce? Well, it's here. It's called The Sea to the North and it's one of the most extraordinary albums I've ever heard. When French Girls appeared on Jubilation, my wife said it was the music she wanted played at her funeral. I was able to tell Garth Hudson this in person. So, with the highest of expectations we sat down to The Sea to The North. What follows are immediate unconsidered emotional responses. This is what the music calls for. This is what the music deserves.

The Saga of Cyrus and Mulgrew (Garth Hudson) MPEG-3 file (534K)

Garth Hudson - tenor sax, soprano sax, Yamaha C6 Acoustic piano / Maud Hudson - vocals + The Crowmatix, Gary Burke- drums / Mike Dunn - bass / Aaron Hurwitz - Ensoniq MR61, Roland D50 synthesizer / Mike DeMicco- Electric sitar, electric guitar / Jim Eppard - electric sitar / Marie Spinosa - percussion / Levon Helm - percussion explosion designer

Music without boundaries. I hear so many things. At the basis I hear the technical brilliance and rhythmic intensity of King Crimson circa 1974, courtesy of The Crowmatix. Then I hear the melodic Frank Zappa of 1970. Then the sax cuts in and I'm lost in the strange sounds of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari (a truly, truly weird Jamaican band of the mid-70s). This stuff stretches the hi-fi system and encompasses bassy sounds without equal.

The Sea To the North (Garth Hudson) MPEG-3 file (601K)

Garth Hudson - Möller pipe organ, Allen organ, Ensoniq MR61, bass saxophone, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, accordion, melodica, taragato / Maud Hudson - vocals / Larry Packer- violin / Mike Dunn- bass / Purna Das (Bauls of Bengal) - Khamak

Larry Packer's haunting Irish-styled violin reminds me that Garth Hudson worked closely with Van Morrison. Then, to my amazement, I can only compare the next passage to 1990s Robbie Robertson. I'm reminded that it was Robbie and Garth in tandem, abandoned after the other three had done their parts and split, who worked the magical sounds of Northern Lights, Southern Cross. Myriad different cultures are blended into one. The next thought is "file under classical." Next to the greatest, of course. Then I thought, "Robbie was after this on the Native American material, but he rarely delved this deep. Perhaps on Twisted Hair. Why didn't they work together?" Then, "Brian Wilson would have loved this. I'm into Smile country." But the medieval bits take over. This is such a rich combination of sounds.

The Breakers (Garth Hudson) MPEG-3 file (638K)

Garth Hudson - tenor saxophone, accordion, synthesizer, Yamaha C6 acoustic piano / Maud Hudson - vocals / Scott Musick (The Call) - drums / Michael Been (The Call) - guitar / Willie Weeks - bass / Tommy Spurlock - guitar

A huge smile from me as the intro quotes from The Weight. Maud's voice is in pure 90s Robbie Robertson territory (but she's a far better singer). The accordion is sheer melodic genius. Then, CHRIST, THE TONE OF THAT SAXOPHONE. "Through the rainbow world ... you and me".

Third Order (Garth Hudson) MPEG-3 file (586K)

Garth Hudson - Chroma synthesizer, Yamaka DX7 sythesizer, soprano saxophone / Levon Helm - drums & drum solo/ Dan Brubeck - drums/ Purna Das (Bauls of Bengal) - Khamak / Manju Das - Ektar / Babu Das - percussion / Badal Roy- tablas

Someone said it was like Miles Davis' On The Corner. For me, it's conjuring up Weather Report meets Philip Glass. I hear Weather Report in the tone of the sax. I hear Philip Glass in the sounds and rhythm. Kowansaquattsi era. Not that it borrows, it just evokes the same spiritual and mental space. The drum solo. Levon Helm. Is it his first drum solo? For sheer style and rhythm, it's superb. All I can think is, Bloody Hell- this man is BRILLIANT.

Dark Star (Garcia / Kreutzmann) MPEG-3 file (540K)

Garth Hudson - synthesizer, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, vocals/ Maud Hudson - vocals + The Crowmatix, Gary Burke- drums / Mike Dunn - bass / Aaron Hurwitz - Roland D50 synthesizer, Voce V5 / Mike DeMicco- electric guitar / Jim Eppard - electric guitar / Marie Spinosa - percussion

The Grateful Dead must have committed more minutes of this to tape than ever have been committed of a song. So Garth strolls in and beats every single one of those versions. The fluid guitars remind me of John McLaughlin at his very best (Mike DeMicco and Jim Eppard take a bow. And another bow. And a third encore, guys!). Garth sings. The way he sings "Ladies in velvet ..." would surely strip Stevie Nicks naked (let's not follow that distracting image of a lady in velvet TOO far).

Little Island (Garth Hudson) MPEG-3 file (613K)

Garth Hudson - Yamaha C6 acoustic piano

The melodies ... Stephen Foster? All American folk and country melody distilled into its essence. This sounds like intensely private personal music. More so because it's solo piano with no voyeur backing musicians. I don't want to intrude on this reverie but also I can't stop listening to it.

And in the end, an album that surpasses my highest expectations. This is work that transcends all barriers, all frontiers. This is genius. You can file it under jazz, classical, rock, new age. Better still, file it under all of them. More people might buy it that way, and this deserves to reach the widest audience. The very greatest keyboard player of the 20th century has entered the 21 st century with a truly original, near-perfect (Shit, actually it IS perfect) album. Is it the best post-Band album? Probably.

So in terms of The Band? It indicates to me that The Band would have best split into two after The Last Waltz. Rick, Richard and Levon were perfect together. Garth conjured magic in the background, but never got the chance to dictate the direction. Actually, Garth should have gone off solo long ago. Much as I love The Band, they surely confined his broad imagination. Every so often he should have united with Robbie. They have an imagination for music, for sheer sound in their heads that has a common factor. Garth has the greater breadth of musical vision. But tie it to Robbie's lyric ability, melodic ability and his ability to tune into the collective. Robertson / Hudson (or Hudson / Robertson) would have been a truly great creative force. It's not too late. It doesn't have to happen though. May Garth and Maud Hudson do one of these on their own every year for the forseeable future and I'll be happy.

Thank you, both of you.

Peter Viney, July 2001

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