LIVE: The Weight Band @ The Egg, 12/30/16
So to be clear: The Weight Band is not a reunion of the surviving original members of The Band, arguably the most unique outfit ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; it’s a group of musicians who played WITH members of The Band – some in later iterations of the group, but mostly in side projects and groups formed after The Band finally called it quits. So it is both beautiful and mind-boggling that the Weight Band not only nearly filled The Egg’s Hart Theatre to capacity, but they also threw down one of the most enjoyable concerts of 2016.
Please understand, I’m not trying to throw shade at TWB as performers: Jim Weider is one of the most hellacious guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch, and Brian Mitchell’s keyboard skills get great respect beyond his stellar work with Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band. This two-set party worked because these people are devoted curators of a sound that has never been duplicated, even in this age where Americana is revered to the point of physical pain. The Band played Americana decades before Americana was cool, and some of the classics they created was the comfort food that got a generation through the post-Woodstock era and the age of Nixon.
All it took to get the crowd howling was the simple piano opening to “Stage Fright,” Robbie Robertson’s plea for understanding that the man “caught in the spotlight” is nowhere near as together as he seems. Marty Grebb may have looked like he got lost on the way to a Travis Tritt concert, but this Rick Danko Band alum had his former leader’s vocals down to a T. Grebb’s own keyboard skills were right up there with Mitchell’s, solidifying that beautifully layered sound that was one of The Band’s main party pieces. It also allowed Mitchell to cut loose on organ during a ripping take on Bob Dylan’s “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood).”
Ostensibly, this night was to be a tribute to The Band’s double-live album Rock Of Ages, recorded in 1971 at what was then the Academy of Music in New York City. It’s a tremendous date, to be sure, with the group buoyed by a five-piece horn section (led by longtime Levon co-conspirator Howard Johnson) blowing up on monstrous horn charts crafted by Allen Toussaint. But Rock of Ages was only one point on a timeline that stretched over three decades, so TWB held off focusing on Rock until the second set. This allowed them to touch on later material like the Cajun history lesson “Acadian Driftwood,” early deep cuts like “Time To Kill” and acoustic gems like Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
As the night went on, you realized just how difficult this gig was from a performance standpoint. The lead vocals on The Band’s recordings were distinctive in the extreme, so it almost made you wince when Grebb re-created Danko’s tortured yodel on “Tears of Rage” and bassist Albert Rogers conjured up Richard Manuel’s gravelly attack on “Get Up Jake.” Drummer Randy Ciarlante had it doubly bad, because he not only had to handle Helm’s lead vocals on “Up On Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag,” but he was also standing in for one of the most singular percussionists in rock and roll.
It’s not that they didn’t nail it: They did, and then some! But those moments came dangerously close to “tribute band” territory, and moved away from the loving portraits these players were painting of friends who were (for the most part) long gone. Happily, Mitchell prefaced “Chest Fever” with a beat-driven keyboard solo augmented by Rogers and Ciarlante; it was a smart move not to try and re-create “Genetic Method,” Garth Hudson’s dizzying stream-of-consciousness intro to “Chest.”
TWB was joined for the second set by the King Harvest Horns, a four-piece horn section that included bari-sax killer Lauren “El Boogie” Sevien, trumpeter Reggie Pittman and multi-instrumentalists Clark Gayton and Aaron Heick; when necessary, Grebb filled in on sax to make Toussaint’s charts complete.
Taking their places on a raised platform at the back of the stage, the Rock of Ages portion of the show got underway with (what else?) The Band’s game-changing reboot of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It.” This track was the tone-setter for Martin Scorcese’s iconic concert film The Last Waltz, so it’s not like we haven’t heard the piece before. But to hear it live, with the brass in full cry and Weider making you forget Robbie Robertson ever played guitar, you could really appreciate why a Motown cover tune is considered one of The Band’s greatest recordings.
While the horns did get to step out for solos on Chuck Willis’ “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” they were at their best when they made the songs like “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” bigger and fuller. Their four-part “vocal” preface to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” sent you right back to the wreckage of the post-Civil War South, and Rogers’ rageful vocals brought the anger and impotence that drives the lyric into full bloody flower. “Life Is a Carnival” was an out-and-out celebration, and “The Weight” had both the band and the audience singing their hearts out.
Like The Last Waltz, it all ended with “I Shall Be Released,” one of several songs The Band wrote with Dylan. If people still smoked, the Hart would have been aglow with lighter flames. It was that kind of moment, taking us back to a day when we only suspected our President was a lunatic, and Russia was still this faraway place called the Soviet Union. The Band helped us survive that time, gifting us with songs crafted out of love and fire, and the Weight Band made us all smile while giving us a beautiful glimpse of a legendary group.
Want to hear more of The Band’s music? The Last Waltz 40 Tour – featuring Warren Haynes, Michael McDonald, Bob Margolin, Don Was, Jamey Johnson, John Medeski, Ivan Neville, Dave Malone, Terence Higgins, Mark Mullins & the Levee Horns – delves into The Band’s vast songbag in concert at Albany’s Palace Theatre at 8pm on Thursday (February 2). Tickets are $49.50, $59.50, $69.50, $79.50, $89.50 & $125.50.