Jim Weider has hovered in The Band’s orbit for over 35 years. The Woodstock, NY guitarist started playing with Levon Helm in the late ‘70s and took over Robbie Robertson’s post in the reformed version of The Band in 1985. He performed with the group until they formally disbanded following Rick Danko’s death in 1999, contributing to their final three studio albums in the 1990s. (He even took part in The Band’s historic performance at Roger Waters’ The Wall concert in Germany.) Though he focused on a solo career in the early aughts, Weider eventually rejoined Helm’s group and played with the famed drummer during his final years.
One of Helm’s final wishes was for his Midnight Rambles to continue after his passing, and Weider has continued to perform at The Barn and elsewhere with several of the drummer’s former collaborators. He’s also continued to perform The Band’s music as a core member of The Weight, an ensemble that also features latter day Band drummer Randy Ciarlante, longtime Band associate Marty Grebb on keyboards and saxophone and Levon Helm Band members Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs on keyboards and bass, respectively. The Weight, which started as an informal tribute to The Band singers Rick Danko and Richard Manuel at The Barn before Helm’s death, has morphed into an active touring ensemble during the past two years.
As The Weight gears up for a series of April shows—including a big gig at Brooklyn, NY’s Bell House on April 24”:http://www.theweightband.com/ Weider discusses the project’s origins, his deep relationship with The Band and the time he opened for the Grateful Dead’s final show in 1995.
Let’s start by talking about your band The Weight, which has become one of your primary projects. How has the project evolved since Levon Helm’s passing?
I am excited about it. Once we got Marty [Grebb] in the band, I said to Randy [Ciarlante], “Let’s do this,” because Levon really wanted to see the music carry on. But the ingredient that really made me want to come back and carry the music on was getting Marty Grebb. His voice is so close to Richard Manuel, and he’s got the feeling.
Randy and I played with Levon ‘till we lost him—which was devastating—in the Ramble Band, and we did a couple of shows together during that time. But the way The Weight [happened was] that Garth [Hudson], Randy, Jimmy Vivino and myself decided to do a couple of shows at The Barn focusing on The Band’s songs. Actually, it just started when Jimmy, Garth and Byron Isaacs, who plays bass and sings with Levon’s band, opened up for a few of the Ramble shows [in 2011] and I said, “It’s great to see somebody singing those great songs.” And Vivino would pick out some chestnuts.
Levon was digging it, and then Garth, Randy, Jimmy and I went out and did a few shows. They sold out, and I said, “Wow, it’s nice to play those tunes.” Some of those tunes were songs that we never did in all the years I played in The Band. A song like “The River Hymn” I may have only done once—back when Richard Manuel was in The Band—down in Arkansas in the 1980s. That’s how far back it goes, and I really enjoyed digging into those old songs.
Long story short: Vivino is a very busy cat. He works on the Conan show and is on the road with The Fab Faux. Garth got busy working with his wife, so I said to Randy, “Why don’t we continue to do it? Why don’t we go out and do some shows and see how it goes?” And once we got Marty, it all clicked.
How did Marty originally enter The Weight’s orbit?
I’ve actually known Marty from the old days when he was in the Fabulous Rhinestones with Harvey Brooks in Woodstock in the ‘70s. We recorded a few of his tunes for The Band album Jericho. He sent us a couple of tunes, and we picked “Shine a Light.” More recently, he did a couple of shows in Japan with Garth and Maud [Hudson]. It was great to see him playing with Garth.
When I saw that he was available, I said to Marty, “You want to do this with us?” And he said, “Man, I would love it! I love The Band’s music. I used to work with Rick Danko when he did his solo records, and I just got done working with Garth, and I just moved back to Baltimore.” So I said, “Well, let’s do some shows.” Once we had him in the band, we really had the vocals right, and I really wanted to pursue this project. It just [felt] right to me. We were good to go.
*Let’s talk about The Weight’s setlist. Was there any emphasis placed on trying to focus on songs that The Band did not perform live in their later years? *
I was in The Band for 15 years, and a lot of times we would do the same chestnuts every show, like “Shape I’m In.” Did we do “Strawberry Wine” or did we do “The Rumor?” Did we go back and do stuff like “Rockin’ Chair?” No, we didn’t do those. We mostly did stuff from Music from Big Pink and The Band. So my plan is that I want to go back and fill each show with different tunes. For the upcoming shows, we’re working on “Rockin’ Chair” and “The Rumor.” Brian is bringing in “Lonesome Suzie.” So I said, “Let’s do something different with each show to make them unique.” The Band’s catalog is so deep, and the songs were so great; they have a life of their own. And if you go deep into the catalogue—we can go all the way back to The Basement Tapes and do some of those songs, and then go all the way to Northern Lights and Southern Cross and even the records after that whose titles I can’t remember the darn names of. [Laughs]
But the plan is to go back and dig up stuff that we haven’t done live and then, of course, do the favorites. But we want to keep it moving. We’re five singers. Byron is an amazing vocalist and bassist, and Randy sings fantastic and plays drums, and Brian sings great and plays ridiculous piano. They even got me singing! [Laughs] I’m having fun going back and trying different songs after all these years. I’m going to continue adding more tunes to the set from the ‘90s record that we did also—just to keep it flowing.
As you mentioned, you played in The Band for 15 years, and that segued into your work with Levon. For readers who are not familiar with your musical journey, can you talk a little bit on how you joined The Band and the role you played all those years?
I did three albums with The Band, and I was lucky enough to write “Remedy,” one of the singles on the first album [since the 1970s], Jericho. I co-wrote that with my good friend [and Bob Dylan collaborator] Colin Linden for The Band. That was a hit in Canada, and it was the second single after our version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” And we are doing those tunes now, too, so we kind of bring people up to date on what me and Randy did with The Band.
I had been playing with Levon in the late ‘70s. At first, Levon asked me to play guitar in his band, Levon Helm and The [RCO] All-Stars. So I got the gig when I moved back to Woodstock from Georgia. Then it became me, Levon and Rick, and then Richard Manuel moved back, and Garth moved back from California, and they were going out to play with Crosby, Stills & Nash as The Band on tour in ‘85. Levon called me up and said, “Hey man, come on down.” We went to this bar we used to play at called The Getaway in Woodstock. It was his band, and I had a band, and those guys would sit in. We all had nicknames. Levon was “Lee Loveless.” It was fun, and then he said, “Why don’t you come by, we’re getting ready to go on tour. Why don’t you sit in with us?” So I sat in and played, and they went off. They had a whole other band with them called The Cape Brothers, and about five days in they got rid of that band.
I think it was Levon’s plan all along. He called me and said, “Hey could you come out? We don’t need two bands with The Band. Could you come out and play?” Basically that was it. I stayed with him for 15 years. Randy came in around 1991, and he did eight or nine years at least, till the end of ‘99 when we lost Rick. So that was the end of it. But Randy and I toured together a lot during that time, and we did the three albums. Randy did good double drumming and vocal stuff with Levon and Rick, so they really had it down.