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Backstage with Garth Hudson’s Eccentricities

Garth Hudson of The Band performs in 1971 Credit: Heinrich Klaffs via Flickr (CC)

In a previous life you went to several concerts a month, when those who are now rock and roll dinosaurs walked the earth. Today you live in a rural area and don’t get out as much, but in August the music made a house call.

The month began with a spirited performance by Taj Mahal headlining a local blues festival, and ended with something that promised to be extraordinary: A rare performance by Garth Hudson, the remarkable multi-instrumentalist who was one-fifth of The Band. He was touring with his wife Maud, about whom you knew nothing apart from the fact that she sings and is in a wheelchair.

You are working for the local paper as a news reporter, where one of the perks is to interview Garth. This is eagerly anticipated but becomes one of the most difficult and challenging interviews you have ever done. He talks slowly (which makes transcription a lot easier) and provides detailed answers that border on college musicology lectures. Any attempt to talk about Bob Dylan, or fame, or anything concrete is rebuffed in favor of historical tales about how Bach walked 200 miles to learn from one of his idols.

“This is amazing when you consider what they wore on their feet in those days,” he says wryly. He later repeats the line onstage.

“This is great information and a lot of fun,” you want to say. “But what I really need is a quote.” You ask one question, he answers another. The interaction is more like a history lesson, since the facts are obscure and detailed and you have no real control over the conversation.

You talk to him through a Bluetooth system in your car and tape the conversation with a device on the passenger seat. When it is over you hang up and start the car and the radio blares out “Ophelia,” The Band’s last big single, and you interpret this as a good sign.

You would not think it to look at him, but Garth was famous long ago as the musical colorist for The Band, a group that rivaled The Beatles or anyone else for their songwriting, performance, and all-around aura.

These days they are reduced on radio to a handful of famous tracks, but their potency cannot be overstated. They first performed “The Weight,” now a modern hymn, and a partnership with Bob Dylan offered a peaceful musical refuge amid what could be (not always negatively) described as overwhelming artistic chaos.

The Band made it clear from the beginning that it was not like everybody else. The first notes of the first song of their first album, “Tears of Rage,” sounded mournful and dissonant to the average pop fan. Many of us had to listen to the record several times before we were able to “get it.”

Not at all like today, where kids listen to a few notes of one song before skipping to the next. The Band would never have survived such a lack of scrutiny.
There are other similarities between The Band and The Beatles. They both had an eight-year recording career and went out as the crowd called out for more. And they were a unit, where success resulted from an equally configured blend of voices and instruments. Taking one away was akin to removing a car wheel or a table leg.

Which is why many fans welcomed Garth to town, even though he was the functional equivalent of Ringo.

The first inkling that something could go awry comes with a late night call from Eric, the musician who is managing the tour. He is driving into town and wondering where they can go to eat at that hour and you remind him that all restaurants aside from McDonald’s close by 10. You hear Maud in the background asking for “a steak to go that we can heat up later,” which you are not inclined to supply because you have already loaned them money for a hotel.

You check them in. Later you are chatting with Eric in the parking lot when Garth comes out of the hotel and tells you that Maud is “dreadfully allergic” to mosquitoes and we should go to the front desk to get a vacuum cleaner, so we can suck the insects off of the ceiling. The front desk closed hours before Garth arrived, so that isn’t an option. So you lend them your vacuum cleaner and hope you get it back in working order.

The next night Eric’s band opens the show and plays until the Hudsons arrive. Eric introduces them and the audience hoots with pleasure and then watches respectfully as Garth wheels Maud into the club and down a ramp to the stage.

After a while the crowd’s mood shifts from starstruck fascination to irritation and impatience. Garth putters around the stage setting up as if the audience doesn’t exist. No one strikes up a conversation because the man is working, but he’s not moving very quickly. Just when you are about to lose patience and go home they start playing, and you have to admit they sound pretty good. Eric’s band is crisp, although Maud’s vocals are all over the map. She kills on a version of “Don’t Do It,” and her reading of “The Weight” gives the standard its due.

You enjoy the experience, but several people stop you on the street telling you of their disappointment in the show, and with you for recommending it.

To you, the music sounds great because it almost didn’t happen. Eric sent a friend to pick up Garth and Maud but the guy got his signals crossed and used a key to enter the room. This caused the musicians to barricade themselves in their room for a while, finally agreeing to appear for the show after you arrive at the hotel along with Mark, the club owner.

Both of you sit patiently in the hall as the Hudsons prepare for the stage, where the audience is waiting. Mark, who has a lot to lose if it all goes south, isn’t especially nervous about the situation. But you are.

The next evening you are once again roped into picking them up at the hotel. This time you wait an hour before they finally emerge, and Maud is luminous. They have just worked out a new arrangement for “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a Band song they rarely perform. Once at the club it all starts over. Garth takes his time wheeling Maud in and starts tinkering again. You decide to cut your losses, go home, play with your cat, and catch up on your correspondence.

The idea came to you the day before, how you could use this proximity to Garth to write something exclusive and special. You decide to take him to an antique pipe organ that was reconstructed in a local church. If you could get Garth to the church, you would have an exclusive video, a rare taped performance and then be able to write a compelling news story about a unique event.

It should be simple enough. You call Stan, the guy who rebuilt the organ, and explain the situation. Mr. Hudson can’t be rushed. Stan is accommodating, agreeing on our time range, while only requiring an hour’s notice to get things started. Garth is a little harder to convince, but he seems to agree after he talks to Barney, who promises to bring along a tape recorder.

Mindful of Garth’s slowness you work backwards: The church building closes at 6 p.m. and Stan says we need an hour, so Garth needs to commit by around 4:30. At 5:30 Eric calls and says Garth is ready. Right now you have more respect for Stan’s time than Garth’s so you pull the plug, telling Eric “ that ship has sunk.”

It docks in another harbor. Eric takes Garth and Maud to an organ site two towns away and well out of your newspaper’s circulation area, where they spent several hours making music and discussing history. The event was unrecorded, aside from some pictures and a few moments of video Eric managed to snag for himself.

You are disappointed you were not there, and wonder if a great musician plays an antique organ in an empty house with three people listening and nothing ends up on YouTube, if that makes a sound anymore.

Soon enough the thrill is gone and you are more concerned about getting Garth and Maud out of the hotel in time than attempting to gather more material for any future story. While observing their slow departure, it’s clear that Garth doesn’t recognize anyone else’s authority, so you can either play along or not. But if you play along you’ll end up pitching in.

A few days later you run into a local musician who had worked the sound board for Garth’s second night, and witnessed the procrastination firsthand. He does not say what you would expect. He tells you that Garth is a true musical genius and follows his own path which has nothing to do with others expect of him.

Later you talk to Mark, whom you would also expect to have a bitter taste, but his strongest impression of Garth has to do with his devotion to Maud. “Whatever he does has to do with taking care of her,” he said. Which explains the grand entrance of Garth pushing Maud up to the stage, as he is showing us his priorities.  And his insistence to acquire a vacuum cleaner at midnight to suck the mosquitoes off the ceiling evolves into a romantic act.

In a previous life you went to several concerts a month. One high point was in 1971, when Taj Mahal opened for The Band. That night Taj strolled onstage alone in front of 10,000 people and played a casual set of acoustic blues and was followed by a strong set by The Band which was at the height of its powers.

Forty years on, Garth, 74, is the casual one. He is only five years older than Taj but the difference is startling. Taj is kinetic throughout; breezing into town in the early afternoon, meeting a group of students, playing a crisp, professional show at night and getting back on the bus.

Garth is deliberate, taking one slow step at a time. Commitments are only suggestions, whether they are to begin playing at the advertised start time, or leave the hotel by check-out. It happens when it happens, or it might not happen at all. We must accept this, since he brings the gift of music that arrives on its own terms.

The Band shone so brightly that a powerful magic stuck to everyone who was around, and Garth is still carrying around his share. There are some who don’t see the glow, like the people who wanted to charge extra for their being two and a half hours late getting out of their hotel room. Usually Garth says they need to stay later and they don’t want to pay any more money. Usually that works, because the one time we see Garth show any real emotion is when the routine fails to convince.

After a few weeks and a certain perspective sets in you get it: Garth ignores the rules because he can. His talent must be a blessing and a burden; he comes to town and people cater to his whims, in return attempting to project their impression of what he should be.

So you feel a bit churlish as you recall Garth’s last words to you as he left town. “I hope we meet again,” he said in a slow drawl, “When everything will be perfect.”

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