Tag Archives: Garth Hudson

Day of the Dead, Disc Two – some thoughts

Disc Two begins with Kurt Vile & the Violators, with J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, taking on Box of Rain. Vile goes for faithful recreation rather than reinvention, and mostly gets away with it. Rob Laakso on bass evidently knows Phil Lesh’s part inside out, but Kyle Spence on drums is disappointing, two- and four-ing his way through the song in perfunctory fashion, with hardly a fill as evidence of enthusiasm. Still, it’s a success, in no small part due to Mascis’s guitar and unmistakable backing vocals.

Rubin and Cherise, from Garcia solo record Cats under the Stars, is tackled by Bonnie Prince Billy, who does a great job with a long story song built on a tricky foundation. He sounds completely in control of and engaged by the material, and the band do an impressive job. A definite highlight. The Lone Bellow do the same workmanlike job on Me and My Uncle they did on Dire Wolf. Moses Sumney’s peppy reading of Cassidy with Jenny Lewis is very nice; he puts himself so much at the service of the song that the recording doesn’t give much of a hint of what his voice can do. Nevertheless, it’s nicely done and I admire his egoless performance.

Lucius, a 5-piece indie pop band from Brooklyn, have the unenviable task of covering Uncle John’s Band, one of the most beloved songs from one of the Dead’s most beloved albums. They make the song totally their own, basing it mainly around a synth bass and the two singers’ harmonies, before unexpectedly taking the song to the disco after the first chorus. It’s a brave reimagining, and one of my favourite things on any of the five discs.

Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo was a Grateful Dead fan before it was cool, so it’s good he’s here. My only regret is that his 12-string take on Mountains of the Moon, from Aoxomoxoa, didn’t allow him a chance to go deep into Jerry territory on his Jazzmaster. At any road, by going back to the Dead’s most psychedelically creative period, it serves as an effective curtain-raiser for what follows.

The centrepiece of disc two is Dark Star by Cass McCombs and Joe Russo. It’s a fittingly chilly, spooky reading that segues into Nightfall of Diamonds – the traditional Dark Star jam, here titled after a lyric from the song’s chorus and played by the same musicians. If there are places where the project’s house band (sundry Devendorfs and Dessners in various combinations, supplemented by a few others) seem a bit conservative compared to the Dead, on Nightfall of Diamonds they play more primally and really channel the spirit of the band. Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds is one of the best things on the whole album.

Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald, a piece by Tim Hecker, may need a bit of explaining. John Oswald is a Canadian composer who developed a style he called plunderphonics:

A plunderphone is a recognizable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded. Whistling a bar of “Density 21.5” is a traditional musical quote. Taking Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” and rerecording it backwards or slower is plunderphonics, as long as you can reasonably recognize the source.

The plunderphonic style was designed to be mischievous, though it can be somewhat sinister, since the results are often so abstract and unlike pop music. In 1994, Phil Lesh contacted Oswald and asked him to apply plunderphonics to the Grateful Dead’s music. Oswald went into the Dead’s vaults, and began arranging and juxtaposing snippets from live performances of Dark Star from different concerts, different decades even, into two hour-long pieces of music: Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes. The amazing thing about them is how Oswald dropped the prankster aspect of his work: although not a fan going into the project, he treats the group’s source material with respect, reverence even, and put together something that, amazingly, sounds like a plausible real time event for huge stretches.

If Oswald was a non-fan, Hecker is an avowed Dead sceptic; a hater, even. Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald is what it says it is – a piece of music made under the influence of and out of respect to John Oswald, rather than the Grateful Dead. It’s diverting enough, but it doesn’t seem to really belong here. It’s here because Hecker is friends with Bryce Dessner, and this was a way of allowing Hecker to be involved.

I had high hopes for TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe taking on Playing in the Band with Lee Ranaldo on guitar, and while it’s not quite what I hoped it would be, the jam section does have some really cool sheets of guitar noise at the back of the mix that I like a lot.

Brokedown Palace by the Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry with Iowa-born singer-songwriter Little Scream and, more intriguingly, The Band’s multi-instrumentalist genius Garth Hudson illustrates what is for me the key problem with many of the less successful readings on Day of the Dead – the addiction to sonic bigness.

I’ve hammered away on this nail many times over the years and probably you’re all bored now, but modern production as subscribed to by the majority of contemporary bands (and the National are wholehearted followers of contemporary engineering and mixing fashion) squashes instruments flat, particularly drums, with heavy compression in order to make the mix as loud as possible. This means that when arrangements get dense, as Brokedown Palace does at the end, with all the extra voices, there’s nowhere for the music to go, in much the same way as if I stand with my face up against a window, and you push me from behind, there’s nowhere for my face to go – instead, my features distort. You can have a big sound or a big arrangement, but in the zero-sum game of digital audio, you can’t have both.

It’s a disappointing end to the disc, but about half of it is very good indeed. My picks from Disc Two: Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds, Uncle John’s Band, Rubin and Cherise, Box of Rain.

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At some point, Phil Lesh stopped playing cool bass guitars. This one, though, this was cool

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Small Town Talk – Barney Hoskyns

This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.

Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.

Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.

For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.

Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).

If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.

Robbie Robertson, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, and John Simon in an Elevator.
Albert Grossman

*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”

The Band as players and singers

Just an addendum to the piece I wrote the other day on The Band. Not nearly enough gets said about these guys as singers and players. If Robertson isn’t quite the player I once held him to be – he’s never really convincing again as a rock ‘n’ roll player after the Dylan tour of 1965-66, and his clean, soul-style playing is just too slavish in its imitation of Curtis Mayfield for him to be considered a player of the first rank – Danko, Hudson and Helm are among the most immediately distinctive players of their primary instruments. And Robertson was, for a couple of years at least, a songwriter of idiosyncratic brilliance

Rick Danko’s bass style is unlike anybody else’s. He never made a feature of locking in with Helm’s kick. He wasn’t a root-fifth country plonkster, or a straight-eights guy. He did this weird syncopation thing that was totally his own. Bass Musician magazine called it Danko-ing. There’s no better term for it; it was totally his own thing. He compared it to playing horn bass, and there was something very tuba-esque about his tone at times.

Here’s how to Danko:

danko-ing

Levon Helm, I’ve said before, is one of my very favourite drummers. He was a very danceable drummer. Funky, with a lazy late backbeat, like Al Jackson’s was late, like Earl Young’s was late, like Ringo Starr’s was late, like Jim Eno’s is today. He put it right where it felt best. And he did it while singing lead and harmony vocals.

As for Garth Hudson, weird eccentric polymath Garth Hudson, you’re talking about a guy who could play a lightning-speed organ solo, create ever-shifting textures with his Lowery, custom build his own effects boxes for totally unique sounds, tear it up with a honking tenor-sax solo or make you cry with a tender soprano sax solo. He’s totally unique. A true one-off.

The Band’s harmonies were great, too. While they swapped lead vocals – and in the early days tended to trade lines with each other within songs – there was a defined three-part harmony they tended to fall back on: Helm at the bottom, Danko in the middle and Richard Manuel on top, often singing falsetto. You can hear it clearly on the beautiful Rockin’ Chair. Manuel sings the verses, but in the choruses, that’s him right at the top. Then he drops down to take the lead again. They’d do it the same way live as on record. It’s not a slick sound. They didn’t hit their consonants at the same time, take their breaths in perfect synchronisation or soften their distinctive timbres to better blend their voices. They sang from the heart, and they sounded wonderful.

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

Sleeping – The Band

We return once again to the Band. But they are one of my absolute favourites, so no apologies from me, I’m afraid!

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called the Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Not that the town’s elders were opposed to rock musicians in general or the Band in particular – in one interview Rick Danko revealed that the local judges and the police referred to them rather fondly as ‘the boys’. But with their first plan not viable, instead the Band decided to use the Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into an ad hoc control room. Producer of the first two albums John Simon was eased out and in his place was the incongruous red-trousered, green-haired figure of Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman’s latest boy wonder. There was reportedly some tension, particularly between the Runt and Levon Helm. One can only imagine.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to argue Stage Fright is on the same level as the Band’s first two albums. It’s not. There’s something alchemical, something magical, that exists in their early work but that is evident only fitfully from Stage Fright onwards. By this time, the Band had divided into factions: the partiers (Danko, Helm and Manuel) and the ‘grown-ups’ (Robertson and Hudson). If he hadn’t been before, Manuel was now a full-blown alcoholic; Danko was an undiscriminating user of whatever was being offered; and Levon was taking fistfuls of downers, which undoubtedly mellowed him out, but didn’t do much for his ability to get up in the morning.

Undoubtedly all of this had an effect on the Band’s cohesion and focus, but even more serious was the drying up of Richard Manuel the songwriter, who had been such a presence on the Band’s first two albums (he wrote or co-wrote In a Station, We Can Talk, Lonezome Suzie, Whispering Pines, Jawbone and When You Awake) and the increasingly humourless didacticism of Robertson’s own po-faced and overwrought songs. The lightness of touch he brought to Jawbone and Across the Great Divide would be less and less evident from hereon in.

This knowledge makes it hard to take the lyrics of Sleeping at face value; the desire to be cocooned and protected from the world was all too real for these guys. Nonetheless all the members of the group step up as players (the instrumental chorus is ecstatic, and Helm’s jazzy drumming superlative) for Manuel’s last great songwriting effort. As with the Manuel songs on The Band, though, it’s actually a Manuel-Robertson co-write, and one wonders how much the lyrics are Robbie projecting himself into the shoes of his bandmate.

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The Band, up on a roof: l-r, Hudson, Manuel, Helm, Robertson, Danko

Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right