A FEW MINUTES WITH… Jim Weider of the Weight Band
By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Ed Conway
At first glance, Saturday’s Cohoes Music Hall performance by the Weight Band might seem like just another cover band rehashing the classic repertoire of The Band, the Woodstock legacy group that started their career in the late ’60s as an east coast answer to the Grateful Dead’s counter-cultural awakening in San Francisco. To the contrary, they are so much more than that.
“We’re trying to avoid the copy-band-name game,” says the Weight Band’s guitarist Jim Weider. “I didn’t know originally what the hell to call the group, and a buddy of mine said, “Why don’t you call it The Weight?” And I said, “Well, that ain’t a bad idea,” because at the time when we started, we were doing songs of The Band, and I wanted to write a new album with this group, so we wouldn’t be looked at as just a cover band.”
“The Weight,” of course, is The Band’s signature song from their 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink. Rolling Stone named it number 41 on their 2004 list of The Top 500 Songs of All Time. Its enigmatic Biblical lyrics open with the lines:
I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey, mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said…
The Band, and that song in particular, put Woodstock on the pop culture map and influenced the entire genre we call Americana today. While the Weight Band will perform that song and other classic Band material including “The Weight” and “Cripple Creek,” they will also be playing new material from their debut CD, World Gone Mad, released in February.
Weider had been The Band’s lead guitarist since Robbie Robertson left the group in 1985. He performed with the legendary Band vocalist and drummer Levon Helm on three Band albums – Jericho, High on the Hog and Jubilation – and was on stage for Helm’s last Midnight Ramble performance before his death in 2012 at Helm’s barn in Woodstock.
Listening to World Gone Mad takes you back to the crackling wood stove in Big Pink, the West Saugerties house the members of the original Band lived in. The album has that timeless feel that’s made American rock music the soundtrack of popular music around the world and given Woodstock the legacy that was confirmed by the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
“What I want to do is get that feel of the music, and you’d have to play with The Band to really know it,” explains Weider. “I wanted the record to come out as an extension of a fresh band of guys that were actually in The Band and to carry on that legacy of music that would set up in the studio and play that live music and get that live feel. ‘The Day of the Locust’ (a 1971 Dylan song covered on World Gone Mad) was recorded totally live, and on ‘Common Man,’ the vocals and guitar parts were totally live. Most of that is live feel. That’s how we used to record in The Band, and I really wanted to get that Band feel. And it’s our own. Every one of our voices is different.”
Weider co-wrote six of the nine original songs on the album including the title song that has obvious contemporary references. The two cover songs are the aforementioned “The Day of the Locust” and the Grateful Dead’s “Deal,” which comes off as a totally remodeled Band-styled “freak-out.” Joining Weider are drummer-vocalist Michael Bram (Willie Nelson, Bob Margolin), keyboardist-vocalist Brian Mitchell (Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band, Dylan, B.B. King), keyboardist-vocalist Matt Zeiner (Dickey Betts, Matt “Guitar” Murphy) and bass player-vocalist Albert Rogers (Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Vivino, Albert Lee).
The ghost of Band founder Levon Helm permeates the Weight Band’s energetic and organic sound. “I think about him all the time,” says Weider. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the great career I’ve had. He was really a big believer in me, and I really appreciate everything he’s done.
“I never saw him (Levon) happier than at the end of his life. I worked with him right to the last week of his life, the last show at the Barn, and he was always a people person. He would talk to the local firemen, and we did a ton of benefits. He was always a good guy. He would never snub his nose at anybody. He really made people feel at home, and to watch him at the end of his life get three Grammys and playing those last shows really meant a lot to me. When he called me to join back up with the Ramble Band after Jimmy Vivino left to go to California with Conan, I was very happy to do it, and it was great to see him happier than ever.”
In 2005, Weider explained his commitment to his music in and out of The Band. “Every note I try and go out and play as good as I can or better. I’m always searching for that Holy Grail of tone, and that’s what keeps me going. Otherwise, there are a lot of better things I’d rather do than schlep around to clubs in the middle of the night driving for hours. You gotta love it.” Thirteen years later, he’s bringing that goal into sharper focus with the Weight Band.
This Saturday (December 8), two weeks after they played Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie, we will hear The Weight Band play Band classics like “Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “Shape I’m In,” but, more importantly we’ll hear the music of a true legacy artist whose roots go back to a pre-festival Woodstock as a child. “It was like a really laid-back little atmosphere in the ’60s, and there used to be these Soundout Festivals in a big field before there was a ‘Woodstock.’ You’d go out and hear all this great music like the Blues Magoos. Talk about psychedelic! Joshua Light Show out in the fields. And when I was a kid in high school, we’d go on the weekends and camp out and hear these great music fests before there was a Woodstock. Oh, yeah! I was there.”