“That’s Band fan territory, so we’re really looking forward to it,” said guitarist Jim Weider of The Weight Band as he discussed the group’s Dec. 9 concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center.
Faced with the task of replacing guitarist Robbie Robertson when the The Band re-formed in 1985, Weider says that he was excited but also comfortable, slipping into the role due to a familiarity with drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko.
“I was in awe of the guys, but I had been working with Levon and the All Stars in previous years, and then I had started working with Levon and Rick, and so by the time that I went out there … I was already kind of comfortable as far as the music went, because it was ingrained in me and I’d been playing some of that stuff with Levon and Rick.”
After the deaths of Danko and Helm in 1999 and 2012, respectively, he felt a determination to carry on the music and the legacy while continuing to solidify his place as a songwriter and performer. The first edition of The Weight Band came together in 2013, and the group’s first album, World Gone Mad, came out in February of the year.
The band recorded the album, he says, “because we were like, ‘Okay, we can’t just be covering The Band’s songs, it’s just not enough.’ I wanted to write an original record and make the group an original group while carrying on that music and sound. We’re the only group that can basically, legally, do the Band tunes, because I was actually in The Band. All of these other bands that do them are just tribute bands.
“It’s been a long journey and I’m continuing the journey, continuing to play roots rock music. The Band’s music has made me a living for many, many years and we’re trying to keep that sound alive with this new album and these great musicians.
“We’ve got a new addition: Matt Zeiner, a vocalist who worked with Dickey Betts Band, and he’s an amazing keyboardist and vocalist. So it looks like we’re going to have to do another album (laughs). This album has Michael Bram drumming and singing and he really has the sound of The Band and Levon’s drumming style down, so people will feel the music. Especially when we do a Band classic, they’ll really feel it, and of course it comes natural to me. Brian Mitchell, who played with Levon Helm, is on the record. We cut a (Grateful) Dead tune, ‘Deal’ and we did it in a Band style so it sounds a little bit like ‘Ophelia’; you know, that kind of groove.
“We purposely wanted the album to sound like another Band album so that we could put them in the show, as we’re doing, and not have it be a big difference. We’re not doing ‘Jessica’ from the Allman Brothers, then going into ‘Cripple Creek,’ although that’s not a bad idea (laughs).”
With such a talented lineup and years of recording and performing experience, one would think putting this disc together would come relatively easy. Not so, says Weider. The challenges came in the form of creating certain nuances that would keep the overall sound in line with that of The Band.
“It was really hard to get really good songs that are up to The Band standard. A couple of the tunes I co-wrote with Levon Helm and a buddy, so I brought them back and re-wrote them, and Brian Mitchell re-wrote ‘Never Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ which I co-wrote with Levon and Joe Flood, and he added a new verse and updated it. We’ve got some updated stuff, but all of the new stuff was really a challenge to make it sound strong and be up to the level of The Band’s music. We absolutely took advantage of the newer technology out there today, but we really tried to record the album with as live a sound as we possibly could. That’s the way The Band always did it.”
Does Weider ever miss his buddy Helm, and does it affect his performance in anyway?
“It’s kinda ingrained in me now, from playing with The Band for so many years,” he said with a mild laugh. “It’s just that I naturally feel that kind of music, plus playing with Levon for over 30 years, with him sitting next to me on the drums, always helps, too. But on this tour we’re doing a little bit of everything. We’re doing songs off of our brand new record, World Gone Mad, and we’re doing some classic Band tunes and some Dylan tunes; this thing kind of changes up. We’ll do some of the classics and mix it in, but because I was in The Band, we’ll do, ‘Remedy’ from the Jericho album that I did and wrote.”
Weider said that when he was starting out as a musician, he was akin to a sponge, taking in whatever he could, with multiple influences that still stick with him today.
“It started early with The Ventures and Scotty Moore and Elvis, ‘Ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,’ and the Yardbirds and the English people coming in, I just loved it all. I tried to soak up as much as I could, and when I heard Roy Buchanan and The Band and that Telecaster playing … I was a Tele player in the mid-’60s. I always loved them.”
Along with the aforementioned song selection, Weider says that those coming to SOPAC on Dec. 9 can expect to get their money’s worth.
“Oh yeah, an hour and a half to two hours, we’ll play. They’ll get a big dose of the new album, some Dylan stuff, some stuff from Big Pink, since it’s the 50-year celebration, and they’ll get some Band tunes.”
The SOPAC show is at 7:30 p.m. Visit theweightband.com or sopacnow.org.