The Band was one of the most complete musical groups ever assembled. They had three different vocalists, all with unique singing styles – Richard Manuel brought the soul, Rick Danko brought the folk, and Levon Helm brought the country. Robbie Robertson was an elite guitarist, as well as one of rock and roll’s premiere songwriters. But the unsung hero of The Band was Garth Hudson: a utility player in the world of music. Similar to how Magic Johnson could play any position on a basketball court, Hudson could master any instrument you chucked at him, and this versatility was showcased throughout The Band’s entire discography. The fact that all of these masterful musicians were coalesced into a single group is mind-boggling. The group’s name said it all: they were the Band, not just another group, and today, I’m going to pick out some songs by The Band that feature some notably unique instrumentation by typical rock and roll standards, most of which were played by Garth Hudson.
Organ: Chest Fever
Starting with The Band’s debut record, Music from Big Pink, I decided to pick “Chest Fever” to represent Hudson’s mastery of the organ. Garth Hudson provided some of the most memorable organ sections in rock and roll history, with the aptly named Keyboard magazine calling him “the most brilliant organist in the rock world.” No track by The Band exhibits this any better than “Chest Fever,” a five minute acid rock-folk-psychedelic jam that features some ear-piercing organ sections – and I mean that in the best way possible. As soon as the song starts, Hudson hits you with a quick improvisation piece before providing the song’s main organ riff, and the organ solo at about the 3 minute mark is something that simply needs to be heard. Honestly, I think this song would be sweet for a closing pitcher to enter a game to. MLB pitchers, if you happen to be reading this, make it happen!
Clavinet: Up on Cripple Creek
Some of you may be wondering: what the hell is a clavinet? Well, it’s the instrument that lends the trademark “boing-wah-wah” sound to funk music. It’s hard to describe, but if you heard it, you’d recognize it in an instant. And this instrument is featured on “Up on Cripple Creek,” from The Band’s eponymous album. It’s really cool to hear this sound in a rock tune instead of the typical funk scenario, and, as I understand, Hudson’s clavinet in this song is actually one of the first occurrences of the instrument in a modern song: pretty cool! And, since this is one of The Band’s biggest hits, I’m sure some of you have heard this track already. If not, I implore that you give it a listen because it’s truly a magnificent song.
Accordion: When I Paint My Masterpiece
This tune, originally written by Bob Dylan, was featured on The Band’s album Cahoots. The accordion, when played properly, is one of those instruments that can just bring a smile to someone’s face. And having Hudson’s accordion paired with Levon Helm’s incomparable voice, this is truly a gorgeous track. The accordion is quite dynamic in this song: ranging from being featured front and center to subtle pieces in the background. I don’t really know how to describe it, but this song has a magical quality to it. That’s just the effect The Band’s songs can have on people, I suppose.
Saxophone: The Unfaithful Servant
The horns featured in this song are just a subtle touch that could’ve been an afterthought. But, the addition of the sax in this song elevates this song from simple folk to a tour-de-force of musicianship. Rick Danko’s voice in this song carries such emotional weight, and the saxophone kicking in in the second verse really heightens the sadness of the song. I would go as far to say that this song features Danko’s best vocal performance, and the instrumentals kick it up a notch to make this one of The Band’s most memorable songs.
Synthesizers: Jupiter Hollow
From 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross, next up we have “Jupiter Hollow,” an underrated track, in my opinion. I don’t even know how to categorize this song – space-funk-folk, maybe? Genre classifications notwithstanding, this song features some epic synthesizer work, an instrument previously unused by The Band. Hudson’s synth touches provide a certain tranquil nature to the song. I would liken it to aquarium music: music that induces a sense of peacefulness and contentment to the listener, but while aquarium music is largely ignorable, this song keeps varying it’s background touches, providing a very dynamic song. This also provides a sense of curiosity to the song. “Jupiter Hollow” is a weird track, but I love every second of it. Also, some dude on Youtube interpreted the lyrics as relating to Game of Thrones. Pretty cool, even if the song was released over 20 years before George R. R. Martin’s first book in the series.
There are so many more notable tracks by The Band that feature unique instrumentation: Rick Danko’s fiddle in “Rag Mama Rag,” Garth Hudson’s Rocksichord on “This Wheel’s On Fire,” the lovely violin in “Acadian Driftwood,” the list goes on. I just thought I’d share a few that I found interesting and that I think provide some insight into why I think The Band was one of the greatest musical acts of all time. Thanks so much for reading, and check out our other articles, as well as our weekly playlist!