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Garth Hudson

[Garth Hudson]

Garth Hudson photo copyright © 2002 John Scheele

Eric Garth Hudson, born August 2, 1937.
Instrument: Lowrey organ, piano, keyboards, saxophones, accordion, horns.

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by Peter Stone Brown

Copyright © Peter Stone Brown. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Of all the musicians in The Band, the most interesting and intriguing is Garth Hudson. The Band was a special group of extraordinary musicians to begin with, but Hudson's keyboard work took them even higher.

Hudson's unique gospel-oriented sound partially came from his use of the Lowrey organ. But it was his amazing technique as well. Indeed, the first time I heard Hudson, it was on blues singer John Hammond Jr.'s So Many Roads on Vanguard (he is listed as Eric Hudson) where he played a Hammond--and his organ work on such songs as "Gambler's Blues" is no less startling. I heard Hudson later that year behind Bob Dylan in October of '65. The Hawks and Hudson (who without his beard looked remarkably like Jonathan Winters) blew my mind. The sound available on several Dylan bootlegs as well as few legitimately released tracks, was a different sound than The Band would display a few years later. With Dylan holding down the rhythm, Hudson, Robertson and Manuel were free to let loose--and let loose they did. Rock 'n' roll was never the same.

With the exception of one single, a live version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," recorded in Liverpool and released as the flip-side of the single of "I Want You," I didn't hear that sound again until 1968 when Music From Big Pink finally hit the stores. Since musician credits weren't listed, just the names of The Band, I didn't know until I saw them the next year that the piano on "The Weight" was also Garth. I mention this, because it was the first song from the album I heard, played on the radio before the album was actually in the stores. Memorable and striking in its country simplicity, it is also amazing because Hudson never plays that lick the same way twice. What I didn't know at the time until articles on the album began to appear was that Hudson also provided saxophone on such songs as "Tears of Rage."

Obviously the Garth tour de force was "Chest Fever." The beginning of the song with its Bach and classical overtones is simply amazing. But it is the musical interlude in the middle of the song that really shines. Here he lets loose with a cascade of notes and sounds truly on the edge--in fact the only moment on the album truly reminiscent of the wildness I saw on stage three years before. That song became the central piece, the showstopper of The Band's concerts in the late '60s and early '70s. The stage would go dark, the other members would leave and all of a sudden the spotlight would shine on Garth in all his bearded glory as he would proceed to make the most remarkable music on his Lowrey and the other keyboards he had stashed on his special stage riser, in the spot traditionally occupied by the drummer. This moment was of course captured memorably on Rock of Ages, where the "Chest Fever" intro is titled "The Genetic Method," but the thing is, it was different each time he played it. What's captured on that album is what happened that night.

Hudson had new surprises on each album and combined various amps and instruments and built many instruments -- they were referred to as toys in one article -- of his own. What many people that was a jaw harp on "Up On Cripple Creek" (from The Band) was really a clavinet played through a wah wah peddle. Then there is his is beautiful sax solo on "Unfaithful Servant." It was a special moment when Garth left his keyboards and came to the front of the stage on that and a couple of other songs. But one of the many Hudson highlights of that record as well as their concerts, was his wild piano on "Rag Mama Rag," perhaps demonstrated best at the song's end where the rest of The Band stops and he keeps going.

Hudson's considerable classical training obviously played a major role in the ensemble feel The Band displayed both in concert and on record. The other members talk about him giving them music lessons in The Last Waltz, and their respect is obvious.

While Hudson played a vital role in all The Band albums, perhaps the most overlooked example of his brilliance is on Moondog Matinee, their tribute to the rock 'n ' roll and R&B they grew up on and played as their stage show as the Hawks. His "Mystery Train" is dark ominous and a million miles long. His "Third Man Theme" is more ominous and surreal than the tunnels Harry Lime is hiding in in the movie.

On Northern Lights/Southern Cross Garth added the synthesizer to his arsenal of musical weapons. And if not all the songs on that album stand the test of time, Hudson's playing on them does.

When The Band reunited in the '80s and '90s the Lowrey was gone. Hudson was exclusively playing the synthesizer with a couple of other keyboards. The sound wasn't quite the same and the synthesizer didn't cut through the sound the way the Lowrey had. When Richard Bell joined the group around the time of their Jericho album, Hudson left a lot of the keyboard soloing up to him, while he concentrated on layers of atmospherics.

But ultimately that doesn't matter. Hudson's genius is evident on every Band album as well as his work with Dylan, and the many other albums he contributed to over the years. To me, he will always be the supreme rock 'n' roll keyboard player of all time easily outshining those whose names are more well-known and those who beat him out in Playboy and other music polls.
--Peter Stone Brown



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