Take a Load Off at the Levoy: Catch the Weight Band

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The Weight Band 2017 Jim Weider Nathan Ekis

The Weight Band: Brian Mitchell, Michael Bram, Jim Weider, Albert Rogers and Marty Grebb.  PHOTO:  NATHAN EKIS

MILLVILLE, N.J. — Fittingly, The Weight Band kicked off its current run of Summer 2017 shows up in Woodstock, N.Y., at Levon Helm Studios, the former home and studio of the late drummer-vocalist of The Band (“Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Shape I’m In”). 

Members of The Weight have been playing up at Levon’s studio (“The Barn”) for years—before and after his 2012 death—for recording sessions, concerts and especially the Midnight Rambles live-music series, which started off as a sort of “rent party” for Helm, but has continued as a prominent music attraction for both fans of rootsy Americana music and the top-notch musicians who perform it.

Playing the classic songs of The Band, plus new, originals, The Weight Band keeps the “spirit and the music” of The Band alive and well. The Band, which started out as Levon & The Hawks in the early 1960s — after parting ways with the original "Hawk," Ronnie Hawkins — would become Bob Dylan’s backing band on his legendary 1965-'66 electric world tour. The Band and Dylan would work together throughout the decades, but their roots converged in South Jersey in August 1965. That’s when, at the Tony Mart nightclub in Somers Point, Levon & the Hawks were playing a summer residency when Dylan called them up and eventually plucked the young rock ’n’ rollers from the popular summer nightspot, and, in effect, changed the course of modern music. 

With most of The Weight Band’s members either actual players in the later incarnation of The Band, or directly and deeply connected to The Band’s legacy, the group includes Jim Weider from The Band, Brian Mitchell of the Levon Helm Band, Marty Grebb (who wrote for The Band and worked with Rick Danko and the late Richard Manuel),  and Albert Rogers, who shared the stage with Helm and Garth Hudson in The Jim Weider Band. Michael Bram, the newest member of The Weight, played with Jason Mraz.

The Weight performs at the Levoy Theatre in Millville on Friday, July 7, 8 p.m. ($32-$37, Levoy.net). 

Although the original lineup of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson) played its farewell concert in San Francisco on Nov. 26, 1976 — documented in the 1978 film The Last Waltz — its members would get back together in the 1980s and 1990s —minus guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson — to perform, record and release a couple exceptional new albums. 

We spoke with Weider back in May — May 24th to be exact, Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday — just before The Weight hit the road. Weider had been rehearsing old and new songs with the group, and said to expect a new album of original material later this year. 
You guys are starting out this summer run with a show at Levon Helm Studios.
We are. We’re going to do a show there and we’re going to preview three new tunes and film it.

When’s the last time you played at Levon’s Barn? 
It’s been a while. We do it every five or six months. I know we did one in September, but I think we did one in February, too.

It’s still active and still carrying on the tradition —
Oh yeah! It’s still active. The music’s happening this weekend. I am playing in the Midnight Ramble Band, and then Saturday I have a tribute I’m doing to Chuck Berry at the City Winery, but every couple of weeks they’re doing stuff [at the Barn]. They have some good shows there. 

Today happens to be Bob Dylan’s birthday. 
Is today his birthday?

Yeah. Dylan runs through the Band’s musical veins in a big way. 
Yeah, [around the time Dylan joined members of the Band in 1983 for a show at the Lone Star Café] I was starting to play with Levon and Rick. That’s how I started was with Levon, and then Levon, Rick and I went out and it was then we pulled in the Band guys and Richard [Manuel] moved back and Garth [Hudson] moved back. 

So, around that time the Band got back together, minus Robbie Robertson?
I started playing with Levon when I moved back from the South, around ‘83. Somewhere around there. I was doing Levon Helm and the All-Stars, and then Levon and Rick and I would go out and do some shows. Rick and Levon added me on [guitar] and then eventually Levon, Garth, and Richard Manuel had moved back, and we started. I got the gig and I started playing with them. Of course, the first tour I got on when I started playing [with The Band] was on a Crosby, Stills and Nash tour. The Band got offered to go out and they went out with another [group of musicians], but after a week they decided not to have two Bands and it  probably didn’t make a lot of sense, you know? So Levon called me up and said to come on out and that was when the Band returned to a five-piece group, the way they sounded always. 

During the course of your time playing with the Band, what did you learn about how, after 30 years working together off and on, the members of the group and Dylan related with each other?
When I first joined, Richard was friends with Dylan. I met Bob Dylan way back then and he had sat in with us a few times. I think he was more friends with Richard and Rick than Levon. I think they got along with him better. When I first joined, we had an offer to go out and play with Bob and back him up and we had this really bad manager. I thought he was bad, at least. And he said: ‘No, they’re on their own now. They’re in the studio, and they’ve cut about five tracks, and they’re gonna go out on their own. They don’t need Bob Dylan.’ And I’m going, ‘Come on, guys!’ I was just a young guy, but, man, that would have been great. So what happens then? Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers [got the gig touring with Dylan] and they did an HBO special and that whole thing in the mid-‘80s. That would’ve broke us off really big, I’d think. But we didn’t do it. But those are the choices they made.

Did the manager get fired? 
Eventually he did get fired. Yeah, but I met Dylan several times. We did the [30th Anniversary) celebration at Madison Square Garden [in 1993]. But he still had standards, you know. I mean he didn’t just come in and hang out with us. He didn’t hang out in our dressing room. The other guys did. You know, Ron Wood and [Eric] Clapton, they came and hang out, but Dylan just kind of stuck to himself. I don’t know him. I’ve never really talked more than three words at a time with him.

Dylan and The Band’s musical partnership is one of the most extraordinary ever. 
You know, he really had such a big influence. I mean, on Robbie and, you know, Richard and Rick. I mean those guys were writing their first record together [when they first met Dylan]. But I think his writing really, really influenced Robbie. And just that connection of those guys working together all the time [for a few years], I’m sure to be working with Dylan, going to the Big Pink house [near Woodstock] and writing songs [had a big impact on The Band]. The way Dylan would write everyday, and getting that kind of work ethic. I’m sure it influenced a young Robbie. And those guys too. 

Levon was the one member of The Band, initially, not from Canada, but from the South. But in the years following Big Pink, he pretty much settled and became a big force — especially during his later years — in the whole Woodstock scene. He really set up home up there and made it his own.
He really did; he loved it up here. Levon loved it up here. He really just grew to like it. He liked the small town that it was, and all the characters especially in the  ’60s and ’ 70s —  there were so many colorful country characters. That town was a little bit more innocent and crazy at the same time. It’s more like everything else now. 

Are you still based up in New York? 
Yeah, I still live up here. But it was a crazy time back then. Levon dug it. You know, it was a small town, it was country, and I think Levon really, really liked it up here. 

How has the town and the area evolved since Levon’s passing?
It’s like everything else, you know. It blows up into something [where] there are more  people, and expensive houses, and a lot of restaurants we don’t need, and everything you don’t need. Like there’s no person to fix your shoes anymore. It’s just changed. There are a few venues still running some music, but then you can’t play late, you know? Like, come on, it’s Woodstock!  

Photo: Marthe Amanda Vannebo

Catch The Weight Band in Millville on July 7, with members of The Band, Levon Helm Band, and Rick Danko Group.

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