The Sea To The North
One of the more delicious ironies of rock ‘n’ roll is that although Robbie Robertson fucked over his compadres in rock’s most mythical band of brothers, The Band, in order that he might take the lion’s share of of the spoils, fame and credits, now he’s some cubicledrone at Dreamworks. Meanwhile two of his erstwhile bandmates, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, consummate musicians and artists, are now more feted than ever. Levon Helm with his raucous midnight rambles in Woodstock, New York, still inspires fervent pilgrimages and much firelit celebration and musicmaking. Fellow Woodstock resident and mad professor maestro of the band, the bearded and soft-spoken Garth Hudson has had an even more notable second, third, and fourth act.
In the Band he was the unassuming jack-of-all-trades, pouring his heart’n’soul out with saxophone, organs, keyboards and synths; check out the footage from the Last Waltz, he lunges at his huge organ like a backwoods Phantom of the Opera, rocking back and forth, wrenching out delicate melodies and otherworldly noise all at once. All these years later, his particular musical skills are very much in demand amongst a younger, bleeding-edge generation of musicians. He has recorded with the likes of Neko Case, the Secret Machines, Teddy Thompson and Heavy Trash. All are eager for the stately, ghostly, heartfelt sounds he crafted on classic albums like Music From Big Pink, flickering organ, roadhouse rough keys. And here, finally, we have his first solo album!
The music on The Sea To The North is the product of a restless mind and skilled hands. This is a sorta starry-eyed melding of Frank Zappa, Esquivel, Dr. John and the Stanley Brothers. Hudson handles a dizzying array of instruments on the album: piano, organs, synthesizers, melodica, accordion and several different varieties of saxophone. And yet he’s a servant of his songs, never does his playing become too showy. Songs veer wildly from genre to genre — Cajun zydeco gives way to quiet storm jazz to unhinged exotica to church music to sea shanties to ye olde rock. Aural collage done organically and live without laptops or sampling, all with a wintry feel. It’s a heady mix, but many times on the album the tunes just aren’t immediately there, even though the chops and joyful atmosphere are. The vocals too are muffled and not as strong as they should be. There needs to be the grounding of a strong voice, like a Richard Manuel or a Neko Case. Hudson’s sax playing is gorgeous though.
Not by any stretch of the imagination essential — that’s the problem of having such a rich legacy — but I’m still fucking glad that this album exists.
Garth Hudson: www.garthhudson.com