L-R: Brian Mitchell, Matt Zeiner, Albert Rogers, Michael Bram, Jim Weider
It’s one of those songs you’ll swear you’ve heard somewhere along the line, even if it’s your first listen: upbeat from the get-go, the opening moments are a swirling blend of keyboards and a clean-voiced Telecaster; a short climb to a high spot and the Tele breaks loose with some double-stops and bends while the rhythm settles into a strident-yet-smiling bass-and-drums-driven groove.
Then comes the vocal, with lovely harmonies as real and comfy as a flannel shirt:
Life goes ‘round like a water wheel
The dreams you spin will soon be revealed
So, roll down river
Don’t let that sunshine fade …
As the vocals take a breath, the keys swell and whirl; the Telecaster soars up out of the mix before settling back down on a series of close-choked notes that are that close to breaking into harmonic chirps and squeals … before the fire of the moment eases back into the lushness of the vocal.
When The Band – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson – released their debut album Music From Big Pink in 1968, it was this same blend of front porch vibe and concert hall musicianship that spun the world’s collective ear around and made us sit down and listen.
Almost five-and-a-half decades later, that new-yet-familiar song described is “Shines Like Gold,” the title tune of the latest album from The Weight Band – a collective of musicians whose mission is to keep the vibe of The Band’s music alive while taking it to new places.
Since the release of The Weight Band’s debut studio album World Gone Mad in 2018, the group has “really come into our own,” according to bandleader Jim Weider. “We have the right chemistry both vocally and instrumentally.”
While The Weight Band’s members are all veteran players with their own histories, many of them share some common Catskill Mountain musical roots. Weider, who replaced Robbie Robertson on guitar in The Band in 1985, was also a member of The Levon Helm Band until the legendary drummer’s death in 2012; keyboardist/vocalist Brian Mitchell was also a member of Helm’s ensemble (best known for their Midnight Ramble performances at Levon’s Barn studio in Woodstock, NY); Weight bassist/vocalist Albert Rogers also performed with Helm as well as with The Band’s Garth Hudson; while Michael Bram (drums and vocals) was raised on the music of The Band and made music over the years with players from the Woodstock scene. In the meantime, newest member Matt Zeiner (who joined the lineup after the release of World Gone Mad) brings a history that includes tours of duty with blues legend Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Dickey Betts’ Great Southern.
The result is a lineup that can revolve through lead vocalists and pull off multi-layered harmonies; concoct dual-keyboard and guitar arrangements (with mandolin sometimes added in for good measure) that sound anything but crowded; and span the gamut from slow and smoky to flat-out roadhouse while still sounding like themselves.
That same description would also apply to The Band – but The Weight Band owns it these days, free and clear. For sure, the core of the music when the group formed in 2013 was The Band’s classic catalog – but it’s always been about the vibe rather than the typical tribute band soundalike thing. That approach has allowed The Weight Band to grow and cultivate their own music (infused with that aforementioned familiarity); Shines Like Gold is the latest and greatest example.
The COVID-19 lockdown was the mother of invention for Jim Weider’s songwriting muse; when touring slammed to a halt in 2020 as the world tucked its collective head under its wing, Weider says he asked himself, “‘Okay … what do I do with my life?’ I finally just got into the process of writing every day; sitting down at a certain time and focusing on it – and things started coming to me.”
As Weider began cranking out new music and lyrics at his home in upstate New York, he shared them electronically with longtime collaborator (and Grammy-winning producer) Colin Lindell in Nashville: “I’d come up with tunes and send them to Colin: ‘You like it? Anything you want to change or add?’ That’s how we did it … and it worked out well.”
Jim describes the way the songs themselves led the way to who would ultimately take the lead vocals in the studio: “You get to know people – their voice as well as their personality. For instance, as ‘Time Is A Thief’ was coming together with that funky, Little Feat sort of pocket, I thought that would be a perfect song for Matt to sing the lead on.
“Or, say, ‘Out Of The Wilderness’ – which actually dates back to the sessions for The Band album Jericho: Colin and I originally wrote that for [Band bassist/vocalist] Rick Danko, but it never got tracked for real. Revisiting it for this album, with that Southern soul vibe and positive message, I thought, ‘Man, I want to hear Albert singing this’ … and it fit him perfectly.
Drummer Michael Bram – who, in his early 40s, is the “young guy” in the group – not only channels Levon Helm’s loose-as-a-goose-but-right-in-the-groove rhythm, but his from-the-heart vocal styling, as well: Shines Like Gold kicks off in fine style with the Bram-led “Weight Of The World.”
And then there’s Brian Mitchell, who tackles a lead vocal like a well-worn leather jacket: he shrugs it on, turns up the collar, and is in it – totally living the story that’s being told, whether it’s one of his own songs (Shine Like Gold’s “Old John” or “Train Is Never On Time”) or his turn at a verse on the album-closing prophetic Willy Dixon tune “It Don’t Make Sense (If You Can’t Make Peace).”
Besides formation flying with Matt Zeiner – the pair weave keyboard voicings with a grace reminiscent of The Band’s Manuel and Hudson – Mitchell also dons the accordion, waltzing with Weider’s mandolin on “Out Of The Wilderness” and “Long Journey.”
Fans of Weider’s trademark guitar work (he’s a renowned master of the Telecaster) will find plenty to love on Shines Like Gold, with moments throughout that range from soaring and majestic to sweet, snappy, and downright greasy – all the very definition of serving the song rather than a solo for a solo’s sake.
The Weight Band laid down the basic tracks for Shines Like Gold at Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, NY with Colin Lindell in the producer’s chair. “We went in and cut the album in four days,” says Weider. “We ended up with ten strong songs and everybody really shines. I think it identifies us as a band … as The Weight.”
Knowing the circumstances under which many of the songs were written – a global pandemic lockdown – one might expect The Weight Band’s new album to be dark. To the contrary: Shines Like Gold offers up introspection without gloom; memories without sadness; and real, honest-to-goodness hope.
“I think the whole record has a theme,” says Jim Weider. “We’re going to come out of this okay.”