Jackson Browne, Beach Boys lyricist Van Dyke Parks and The Pogues’ Cait O’Riordan are among the numerous musicians joining the Wild Honey Orchestra on March 25 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale to pay tribute to The Band and raise money for Autism Think Tank. One of The Band’s founders, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, also will be performing, along with his wife and musical collaborator Sister Maud Hudson.
These remarkable artists will join the amorphous collective of regulars who make up the Wild Honey Orchestra to present in their entirety The Band’s two most iconic albums, 1968’s Music From Big Pink and 1969’s The Band, along with a handful of other surprises. Although guest artists are still being confirmed, musical director Rob Laufer estimates that at least 40 musicians will be onstage throughout the night, including several keyboard players, an ensemble of backup singers and a horn section, all meticulously and passionately re-creating the sound and spirit of The Band.
“What was so appealing to me as a young musician [about The Band] was how universal and how historic the music was, and yet so articulate and so creative musically," Laufer says. "Listen to the keyboards. Listen to the bass line. The brilliance and originality of Robbie Robertson’s concept as a songwriter. It’s just staggering.”
The Wild Honey Orchestra have roots dating back to 1993, when they began a 10-year run of benefit concerts taking place in a variety of settings throughout Los Angeles County. After a decade-long hiatus, the group resumed doing annual benefit shows in 2013 as a way for producer Paul Rock to give back to Autism Think Tank. The national organization had recently begun helping Rock’s then–9-year-old son Jake manage the symptoms and challenges of being on the autism spectrum, in large part by providing groundbreaking information on research and treatments to the families of children with various autism-related health issues.
When they relaunched the Wild Honey Orchestra, Rock, co-producer David Jenkins and Laufer decided to present full albums, something they’ve now done with several Beatles LPs before taking on The Band. Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album were natural fits, as Laufer has a long history of performing in Beatles tribute shows, including two at the Hollywood Bowl. Wild Honey Orchestra also celebrated The Beach Boys by producing a “’67-’77” show that showcased a sampling of fan favorites from that era of “America’s Band.”
Of their decision to celebrate The Band, a group that rose to prominence backing up Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan, Rock says, “We wanted to do something that paid tribute to our Dylan side, which we’ve never done. Bob’s out there doing it, so we didn’t feel like we needed to do a Bob Dylan tribute. But we all love The Band. The Basement Tapes overlap with those first two records. It’s also different for us.”
Indeed, tackling The Band’s two best-known albums is proving to be a profoundly different challenge. Even though four-fifths of The Band hailed from Canada, they were among a small handful of groundbreaking artists in the ’60s exploring Americana themes and sounds. The Band’s first two albums arguably changed the course of American music, along with the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album and The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. These albums not only helped define the following decade of popular music but also paved the way for the progressive bluegrass of Nickel Creek and indie folk of The Avett Brothers, among seemingly countless others.
Laufer's guiding principle in directing a "full album" show, he says, is “to think what is going to be most satisfying for the audience. The last three or four shows, we decided that’s playing as close to the original recording as possible. I’m always open to an artist reinterpreting. But even the artists get really excited about the original sounds being re-created live. Luckily we have the talent to really nail it.”
Wild Honey’s expansive roster of talent and reverence to The Band have drawn Garth and Sister Maud Husdon to fly to Southern California from upstate New York. Both say they're excited to participate in the show as well as the two days of rehearsals in the runup to the event.
The Hudsons have a long history of using their talent to help those whose lives have benefited from their music. “I’ve known for years that the music has a certain sustaining quality and provides support,” Garth says. Maud adds, “When I was a teenager I worked with kids with autism and various limits in their lives. I found out that there were some kids that were a lot more intelligent than they were given credit for. How you help can benefit them tremendously, [and they can] help teach you something about what they’re going through.”
While Sister Maud says they want the show to remain full of surprises, she and Garth revealed that they plan to perform “It Makes No Difference” from The Band’s 1975 Northern Lights – Southern Cross album as a tribute to late bandmates Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. Garth details with great enthusiasm the ways in which technology has enabled him to travel across country and re-create his full range of signature of organ sounds without having to transport as many instruments as was necessary several decades ago. “We have old reed organ sounds that take you back," he says.
Along with Hudson, Browne is the other closest thing the show has to a “headliner.” The man who wrote “Doctor My Eyes,” “For Everyman,” “The Pretender” and “Call It a Loan” seems a natural fit for a show benefiting those on the autism spectrum. While Browne is best known for spending his career documenting the generational disillusionment of the baby boomers, some of his seminal records, including his 1972 self-titled debut and his 1974 masterwork Late for the Sky, deal heavily with the need for interpersonal connection and the failure to achieve it through miscommunication and other human error. For those on the spectrum and their loved ones, it’s no surprise that Browne has at least a handful of autistic devotees.
One of them is Nick Guzman, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter who has played autism benefits alongside Stephen Stills and Neil Young, in addition to counting himself a proud Wild Honey regular. Nick and his mom, Christinna, both say that one of the greatest ways the Wild Honey Orchestra have improved Nick’s life is by surrounding him with amazing musicians who are also wonderful people, wanting to share the full depth and breadth of Nick’s interest in this life-affirming music.
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When asked what is the biggest misconception about people on the autism spectrum, Guzman replies, “I do like to communicate with other people. I don’t like to be alone, to be honest.” While Nick remains closed-lipped about which songs he might be performing with Wild Honey Orchestra on Saturday, he counts “The Weight,” This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Up on Cripple Creek” among his favorites.
The Wild Honey Orchestra perform "The Band: Big Pink and Beyond" at the Alex Theatre on Saturday, March 25.