Jackie Greene guests with you guys on your cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Deal” on the album. How did that collaboration come about?
I thought that would be a great tune for us to track, so I came up with that guitar riff and brought it into Brian, and he said, “Man, I love that tune; I’ve played and sang it before.” I said, “Well, let’s try it with this groove, like a Band kind of feel, like ‘Ophelia’ or ‘Walcott Medicine’ kind of vibes.” Because they did it as a shuffle. So we changed up the feel, and it really worked. Jackie had done Camp Cripple Creek with us, and I had done a couple shows with him, so I called him up. I thought he’d be perfect for it. And he just nailed it. He sang and played some beautiful stuff. So that was awesome. He’s such a good guy, and a good spirit.
In your mind, how are the legacies of the Grateful Dead and The Band intertwined in the history of Americana music?
To me, the Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers were the three biggest bands in 1970. Robert Hunter’s songwriting with Jerry—those songs will live forever—and same with the Band tunes. And more or less The Allman Brothers—not as much for me, but maybe other people might argue. Their music was their own thing, and they created their own genre. But yeah, I think [1970’s] Workingman’s Dead was totally influenced by The Band. When I heard that record when it came out I said, “Wow, that sounds The Brown Album [1969’s self-titled] that The Band did.” And they were all buddies. I mean, we did the last show with the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia at Soldier Field in 1995; we did two nights with The Band. Those were the last two shows he did, and I really got it. I saw how they kind of ebbed and flowed their music together. They would create this thing and it would build and build. I mean, I was totally getting what they were doing. And it was great to be with them. But yeah, I do think they intertwine.
I think [“Deal”] really fit the theme of World Gone Mad, with the lyrics. “Fire in The Hole” and “Deal,” they both say something politically, in a way. And “Common Man.” There’s a thread we wanted to put out there right now that we wanted people to hear.
Can you elaborate on that theme and thread of the album? And the cover art, which shows an elephant on top of a globe that has a big crack in it.
Yeah, the crack goes through DC.
That’s a nice touch.
Well, “Screaming and hollering like chimpanzees/ Fighting one another on my TV,” I think we said that on the second verse of “World Gone Mad.” It just kinda happened like that. I mean, when I wrote that tune, I had that mandolin riff, and then I had “Common Man” that we brought out later, and Marty had this tune “Fire in The Hole” that he wrote a while back. I always dug it—I said, “That’s very Band-ish.” So it all kind of lined up in its own way. You know, we didn’t really think, “We’re gonna make some kind of political statement here.” Although I did in writing “World Gone Mad.” But other than that, those songs just kind of fell in place. And I think it works.
Are politics or the state of the world topics that come up in conversations with the other guys in the band?
Well, you know, we talk about it on the long van rides. We’re always talking about what’s going on. If somebody has an idea, we’ll talk about it, but no, we didn’t really say, “Oh, we’re gonna make this a themed record.” It just kind of fell in place naturally.
Is it cathartic to make and sing that sort of music that is making a statement, or at least saying what you’re thinking?
With what’s happening now? Yeah. And I think I’m really interested to see how people take to the tunes and see how they identify with ‘em. We’ll know—we got a lot of running around to do.
What sort of lessons did you learn about music and legacy when you were playing with The Band in the latter days of the group, and also playing with Levon in his last years?
Well, I’ve said this to many people—one thing I’ve learned from those guys is if you’re gonna play, give it 110%. And they always did, no matter what, no matter how tired they were. Once the lights came on, I’ve learned, there’s no fluff. Those guys always played from the heart. And Levon, right until the last show we did with him—a couple weeks before he passed—he played as hard as he could.
What was that last show like?
It was a very emotional night, at The Barn. Los Lobos were with us, and we all got together after in [Levon’s] kitchen. And I know he thought he could play better, that he was upset he couldn’t play as good as he wanted to, but that was him, and that was all the guys, really. I learned when you go out to play, always do 110% and play from the heart.
Did you know that that was going to be his last show at the time?
No, no. We knew he was hurting. I knew he wasn’t feeling well.
With The Weight Band, do you try to focus on any certain eras of The Band that people might not think about as much?
We would get into some deep tracks like “The Rumor” and stuff that I never did with The Band when I was with them. We definitely got into that, which makes it pleasurable; people enjoy it. Our main focus now is to put out and to push our own album and our own music. Then, you know, we’ll do some of the classic ones and keep the music going, but the focus is definitely on an original record and bringing original music to people, while keeping that sound.
When you started learning playing those tunes that you hadn’t played with The Band, did you gain any new insight into how The Band played and wrote music that you maybe hadn’t considered before?
Yeah, you’d see the different inversions that Robby [Robertson] would play against what Garth would do. Garth, I think, really did a lot of amazing chord inversions, and Richard Manuel was really like the Richard Tee of the band—a lot of driving eighth notes, his very simple but fantastic rhythm piano. Very underrated. I don’t know if people really realize it. I did, because I got to work with him, and also by listening to those records. His rhythm playing was so awesome. He really was the glue. Levon always loved that about piano players. When we had Stan Szelest, same thing, and Richard Bell. We always had great rhythm piano players, and we got two good ones now with Marty Grebb and Brian Mitchell. They’re both monsters.
What do you see in the future of The Weight Band?
I think the goal is to keep playing, to write another record. We’ll see how this one goes. You know, establish us as an original band, and then we can always do The Band songs, because we got that down. We’ll definitely play some Band classics in our shows, but the thing is is to bring out the original music and carry on that sound and that feel, you know. I think that’s important.