On its latest release, The Weight Band continues to pay loving tribute to the music of The Band as well as add some of its own twists (and original tunes) to the legendary Woodstock group’s extended catalog.
With latter-day Band guitarist Jim Weider on board, “Acoustic Live” represents the past and present of The Band family, recorded during rehearsals at Big Pink, the house in the woods where The Band famously collaborated with Bob Dylan, and a concert at Levon Helm Studios, aka “The Barn.”
Opening with the traditional “Ain’t No More Cane,” The Weight Band showcases its ragged but sweet vocal harmonies. The singers also shine individually when they step out for lead turns, with keyboardist Matt Zeiner’s impassioned delivery really hitting home. The boozy ballad “Bessie Smith” (released in 1975 on Bob Dylan and The Band’s “The Basement Tapes”) is warm as a shot of whiskey on a snowy Catskills night.
The group offers a spicy take on the Grateful Dead’s “Deal,” with Brian Mitchell’s gruff vocals and peppy accordion taking the tune on a trip from its San Francisco Bay Area home to New Orleans.
The Weight Band proceeds through “Remedy,” from The Band’s post-Robbie Robertson album “Jericho,” before diving into the Dylan classic “Highway 61 Revisited.” Again, the idea is not to replicate but to celebrate, so drummer Michael Bram lays down a shuffle beat, and a fiddle, not on the original Dylan recording, is prominent.
While The Band shook the rock world to its core by stripping away the psychedelia and indulgent tendencies of progressive rock, it also had an occasional flair for the dramatic and complex, as The Weight Band shows in its cover of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” Funky, cutting rhythms and spooky harmony vocals are the backdrop for the lament of a down-on-his luck farmer. A hard day’s work is also the subject of “Common Man,” an original from The Weight Band’s 2018 studio album, “World Gone Mad,” but this time the mood is celebratory, not forlorn.
“Caledonia Mission,” from The Band’s 1968 debut album, “Music from Big Pink,” is delivered with the nuance of players who have lived this music rather than simply learned it — it’s in their veins and not just on their music stands. The song breathes and sighs like a living thing, and the musicians are there to let it do its thing and not force the issue.
That is the case for the entirety of “Acoustic Live,” and it’s no coincidence that most of The Weight Band have played with members of The Band and are part of the community that has flourished around the late Band drummer, vocalist and mandolin player Levon Helm’s barn studio. Weider’s firey Telecaster playing has been a keystone of latter-day efforts of The Band and its various offshoots. Mitchell had also worked with Helm and, like Weider, is a member of The Barn’s Midnight Ramble Band. Rogers played with both Helm and Band keyboards sorcerer Garth Hudson.
The Band’s legacy might be complicated by its knotty and somewhat sad history: Robertson breaking up the band after “The Last Waltz”; Richard Manuel’s suicide; Rick Danko’s drug addiction and death at 55; and Helm and Robertson’s decades of estrangement. But those challenges also produced Helm’s Grammy-winning career comeback after a battle with cancer, his beloved Midnight Ramble sessions at The Barn and the greater collective that has sprung up around them, including The Weight Band. Helm has said, “If you pour some music on whatever’s wrong, it’ll sure help out.” Have a listen to The Weight Band’s “Acoustic Live,” and you’ll see what he means.