Spotlight: The Weight Band

Brian Robbins on June 2, 2018

“You just keep that rhythm, Jimmy—lock in with the kick-drum and keep that rhythm niceand thick.”

Those were Levon Helm’s words to Jim Weider when he was handpicked to take on the guitar duties in The Band back in 1985, a few years after founding members Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel reformed without guitarist Robbie Robertson.

Helm’s’s advice made perfect sense to Weider—that was the way he’d grown up playing music in Woodstock, N.Y.

“Being a guitar player around Woodstock in the ‘60s, you’d be backing up everybody from folk singers to rhythm- and-blues players,” Weider says 33 years later, as his current Upstate New York outfit The Weight Band rolls out their debut LP, World Gone Mad.

“There’s a certain sound that you hear on The Band’s records: a mixture of New Orleans, folk, rockabilly. It’s funky and loose—nothing’s super polished. That Woodstock sound is the kind of music I’ve played all my life.”

Weider soldiered on with The Band through their quiet last waltz after Rick Danko’s untimely passing in 1999 and continued to divide his creative energy between his own projects and work with his former bandmates. And now, as the most visible direct connection to The Band still actively touring, Weider is bringing that same feel, that same groove and that same vibe to The Weight Band. The biggest hurdle that Weider and keyboardist/vocalist Brian Mitchell, keyboardist/ saxophonist/vocalist Marty Grebb, bassist/vocalist Albert Rogers and drummer/vocalist Michael Bram have had to overcome is the misconception that they are exclusively a Band tribute act.

The project originated during a 2013 jam session at Helm’s fabled barn dubbed “Songs of The Band.” Organized by Weider and latter-day Band drummer Randy Ciarlante, the evening featured Hudson, Fab Faux guitarist and onetime Midnight Ramble staple Jimmy Vivino and Ollabelle bassist and regular Helm collaborator Byron Isaacs. The collaboration clicked from the start and captured the spirit of The Band at a time when fans were still reeling from Helm’s 2012 passing. After a few additional tributes, Weider, Ciarlante and Isaacs decided to put together a more full-time project featuring some of the leading lights of the Catskill Mountain- birthed musical roots system.

And each member of the current Weight Band has a close tie to original group. Grebb played in bands that Danko and Hudson each led, wrote tunes with Manuel and contributed songs to The Band’s 1993 album Jericho. Rogers—who replaced Isaacs, who now plays with The Lumineers, Lost Leaders and his own combo—performed with Hudson and Helm, and Mitchell was a member of Levon’s Midnight Ramble Band for years.

Even The Weight Band’s newest member, Bram, who joined after Ciarlante moved on, was raised on The Band and made music over the years with members of Helm’s old group The Barnburners. If you dig into The Weight Band’s respective résumés, then you’ll find they’ve also jammed with a list that includes Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Al Green, Etta James, Albert Lee, Hubert Sumlin and Jason Mraz.

Though The Weight Band grew out of a tribute to Helm and his bandmates, with its newly released 11-track album World Gone Mad, the ensemble have firmly established themselves as an entity unto their own. They cut 10 of the LP’s songs at The Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and the album’s final selection is from Daryl Hall’s Daryl’s House club in Pawling, N.Y. Weider’s main weapon of choice for the driving title song is a mandolin, rather than his faithful Telecaster, but he plays the little beast with an ear-catching fierceness while sharing his views on the current state of the world’s affairs with his lead vocal. Grebb’s voice, especially on “Fire in the Hole” and “Heat of the Moment,” recalls Manuel’s sweet falsetto.

Weider remembers going into the studio with The Band back when he first joined to record a version of “I Wish You Were Here Tonight” that featured the delicate singer and Band multi-instrumentalist who hung himself in 1986, shortly into Weider’s tenure in The Band .

“I loved that song, but it never got released,” says Weider. He resurrected it for the World Gone Mad sessions, with Rogers taking the lead on the verses and Bram coming in on the choruses. The song also features a lovely passage where Mitchell’s accordion gently passes the torch to Weider’s guitar before Grebb’s sax takes over.

The Weight Band also turn the Hunter/Garcia-penned classic “Deal” on its head, opening the track with a funkified guitar riff before the song settles into a raucous, rootsy groove with Mitchell’s bluesy growl nailing the proper attitude for the tune. (Jackie Greene lends a hand, singing lead on a verse and adding some slide guitar to the track.) “Big Legged Sadie” (which is chock-full of hip-grinds and R. Crumbish characters) sounds like a Grateful Dead rarity but is actually an original cooked up by Weider and Grebb; “Common Man” and “Never Too Old (to Rock n Roll)” were Jericho-era buried treasures the group unearthed for the sessions. “Every Step of the Way” is a crash-course in Woodstock soul; and “Day of the Locusts” might be one from Mr. Dylan’s catalog, but by the time Bram’s done singing, he owns it.

“Remedy” is the perfect album closer—a tasty sampler of what The Weight Band sounds like in a live setting. Rogers and Bram lock in, allowing their bandmates to roll and tumble with wildly spiraling keyboards and feisty Tele work from Weider.

“We’re itching to get out there and play these new tunes,” Weider says. “We want people to hear what this group can do.”

This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here