Garth Hudson and Jim Weider: The Band, Levon and A New Form of Literature
It’s a hot, rainy Friday evening in New York City when I find myself standing outside the Iridium Jazz Club, waiting to interview Garth Hudson and Jim Weider of The Band. Typically, Hudson is late, so I sit down by the bar and watch Weider and his band soundcheck a very sloppy rendition of The Band classic “Rag Mama Rag.”
Nearly an hour late, Hudson strolls in decked in black from head to toe, with his signature beard hanging midway down his chest and a heavy leather jacket—it’s nearly 100 degrees outside—that has the word “Burrito” scrawled across the back in big red letters. He proceeds to set up his gear, then disappears backstage as showtime quickly rolls around.
The musicians, sans Hudson, take the stage shortly after the scheduled time—a miracle considering Hudson was onstage only minutes before completing his soundcheck—and quickly settle into some fantastically groove-oriented instrumental jazz jams. Half way through the set, Weider welcomes Hudson to the stage, and after a deafening applause, the legendary organ master emerges and begins playing a solo medley of various tunes and jingles as he slouches and, at times, nearly topples over from excessive leaning. Following the intro, the band launches into a reggae version of “The Weight,” before running through Bob Dylan’s “Looks Like a Woman” as well The Band classic “Rag Mama Rag.” Surprisingly, they pull off a spot-on take on the latter tune, with Weider mimicking the lead vocal lines on his 50s telecaster.
Once the set comes to a close (the first of two that evening), Hudson’s people usher me into the backstage room of the club where I find Weider scribbling out the next setlist, while Hudson lurks over a steaming cup of coffee with a corncob pipe hanging out of his mouth. When they tell Hudson I’ll be doing the interview, he looks up at me and says in his deep growl, “him?”
But after I’m introduced to Hudson, I tell him that I’m a fellow Canadian and went to school in London, ON where he grew up. Upon hearing this, he immediately comes to life and begins reminiscing about the city’s geography and his childhood growing up just one block from where I spent my junior year.
“I grew up on Boroughdale,” recalls Hudson. “We used to toboggan down the hill where the music college is now.” This side of Hudson is one that is rarely seen, and one that has rarely been discussed as a result of his well-documented interview shyness. But for some reason, Hudson seems perfectly comfortable chatting with a fellow Canadian in the dimly lit backstage room of the Iridium. Within moments, the discussion turns to Toronto’s geography, and, before long, Hudson is telling one of his many legendary tales about meeting Dylan for the first time at the notable Toronto club the Concord Tavern.
“From the Concord we would go south to Arkansas, Texas and play various places and that was something too. A few stories there. Then we’d go back to Toronto, maybe to the Concord, which is at Bloor and Ossington in Toronto. [The Band’s former road manager] Bill Avis was at [Levon’s] funeral, and we were talking about old memories and what was funny was that it’s surely more important than any other time or vignette or story. I said, ‘Bill do you remember driving down on the sidewalk, knocking over garbage cans so that everybody wouldn’t get fined? Ronnie [Hawkins] would fine you eighty bucks or a bottle of whiskey if you were late, or for other infractions.’”
While few know the true Hudson, in the short time I had the pleasure spending with him, he proves himself to be a deeply focused, intelligent man with an unexpected, yet witty sense of humor. His fascination with things like my iPhone, caligraphy and narrative recording methods prove to me that he has hardly lost a step, but, instead, like many of the great artists of our time, is living under a veil of constant mystery.
Once we get to chatting, I ask Hudson and Weider how they first met, and before long the two are completing each other’s sentences as they reminisce about the good ol’ days in Woodstock, NY.
“I was working in a stereo store in Woodstock, NY,” says Weider. “Garth came in one day and brought in the first record [by The Band], Music From Big Pink, and the owner Kermit Schwartz put it all the way up. The first thing I heard was Garth’s organ.”
“That’s right, Jimmy,” Hudson chimes in. “Around ’83 we put together the latter day Band. I don’t how we chose [Jim]” he adds referring to the reformed version of The Band, which featured Weider in place of original guitarist Robbie Robertson. “I wasn’t there when we decided I don’t think. It was through Levon [Helm] and Rick [Danko],” explains Hudson. “Scaling down wasn’t the reason we chose Jimmy, I’m sure. Levon had always been right. He’s always been right about anybody that is participating. He could look at someone and with a minimum gesture and indicate that something should happen. Apparently Duke Ellington was the same, you know. He just had to look at somebody and they knew what he meant.”
“I had been playing with Levon and Rick in Levon’s All Stars,” adds Weider. “We did a gig at The Getaway, this club up in Woodstock, and Garth and the guys were going out on the road with Crosby, Stills and Nash in ’85. Levon called me up and said ‘Jim, come on down we’re playing The Getaway to warm up The Band.’ So I went and sat in and played the whole night. Then Levon called me about a week later and said, ‘come on out, we’re going to bring The Band back out to five people.”