By Michael Lello
While three of the core members of seminal Americana rock collective The Band have left this earth, the music lives on – thanks in no small part to The Weight, a newer group formed by two latter-day Bandmen, guitarist Jim Weider and drummer Randy Ciarlante.
After Band guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson pulled the plug on the group, and The Band and its famous friends played a final show, memorialized in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz,” remaining founders Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson resurrected the group with other players, with Weider coming on board in 1985 and Ciarlante joining up in the early 1990s.
The Weight will play the Camden Farm Festival in Camden, N.Y., in Oneida County on Saturday.
In addition to Weider and Ciarlante, both of whom Highway 81 Revisited spoke with by phone recently, The Weight also includes Byron Isaacs (bass, vocals), Brian Mitchell (keyboard, vocals) and Marty Grebb (multi-instrumentalist, vocals). Those three are all members of the immediate musical family of The Band; Isaacs and Mitchell were in late Band drummer/vocalist/mandolinist Levon Helm’s group, while Grebb played with Danko and wrote songs for The Band.
“Well, this project basically is an offshoot of something that Jimmy Vivino started a few years ago,” Ciarlante said, referring to the guitarist, Fab Faux member and Conan O’Brien late-show bandleader. “And Jimmy got myself and Jimmy Weider, Byron Isaacs, Mitchell and Garth in the mix, and we basically covered specifically the first three (Band) records, and we floated in a few other ‘Basement Tape’ things and a few other tunes we enjoyed playing.”
The Weight has since become a full-fledged group, and with a resurgence of interest in The Band’s music – thanks in part to the work done by Helm at the end of his life at the Midnight Ramble events held at The Barn, his Woodstock home studio — The Weight has found an appreciative audience. The musicians themselves have had a blast dipping into the old tunes, too, Ciarlante shared.
“It excited me, because we were dealing with some tunes that we hadn’t played in the ’90s,” said the drummer, explaining that the post-Robertson core members did not want to play much of the music from the first three Band records, for whatever reason. “Those early Band songs are tremendous classics. You’re touching on a lot of different idioms in music – folk music, there’s some jazz, even world beat stuff, country, classic rock.”
As Weider explains The Weight’s formation and continuation, “the whole thing made sense.”
“The first two shows we did sold out,” the guitarist noted. “I said, ‘Hey, I love this music,’ and we were playing it with the Levon Band, so why don’t we just do it? And people have responded really great.
“We try to stay really true to it, the sounds and keyboard sounds and the vocals, and throw in all the songs. We start from the actual very first album (‘Music From Big Pink’), and go all the way through ‘Northern Lights – Southern Cross’ and ‘Cahoots.’”
Weider grew up in The Band’s New York state stomping grounds and was a fan of the music before he ever played with the group. Not surprising to any listener of The Band, there’s a certain feel a musician needs to embody, beyond pure instrumental chops, to play this music, he said.
“I grew up listening to The Band, and I met Levon in like 1968 and then started playing with him in the late ’70s with the Levon Helm All Stars. And then we did some Band songs with the Levon Helm Band way back when, before we started The Band again. So there’s a certain feel that not everyone could play that music, unless you grew up with it, and I grew up with all those guys, and their music was just part of me.
“It was very natural when (Helm) asked me to join The Band.”
Ciarlante’s background was quite different – he admits he wasn’t an aficionado of the legendary group he would eventually join.
“Jimmy (Weider) was a huge Band fan. I wasn’t a huge Band fan,” he said. “They were local guys playing up in the same neck of the woods as I was. They were really good; when the stuff came on the radio, it sounded great, or if you saw them playing, you knew they were special.
“So I wasn’t that big of a fan. I had to learn their music. I had to shed, I had to study their music two weeks before I started playing with them. Even when I worked with Levon, we would play a few Band tunes, but we were pretty much diving into classic blues.”
Ciarlante, already an accomplished drummer, had to rethink his role behind the kit when he started playing in The Band.
“I had to learn to play and arrange and not get too busy and make each section sound different by changing your pattern around, and I really learned how to sing and stay in time and not just bark out an r&b tune at a bar at four in the morning. I had to break myself down.”
Helping to carry on the legacy of The Band is a mission The Weight – obviously named after the group’s most famous song – embraces with ease.
“They were just accepting, they never told me what to do, just play – and play your heart out,” Weider said of his old bosses. “They were just always about making music. We’d get in the bus after a show and listen to the whole show, and we’d hit the road and travel all night and listen.
“They didn’t want to stop playing music. At the end of the night, you’d find Rick (Danko) upstairs singing ‘It Makes No Difference’ to someone up in the dressing room. And Levon was always pushing it.”