Jim Weider Knows The Weight The Band's Legacy Carries
Photo courtesy of Jim Weider
The 2014 film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features a moment that slows down the sci-fi blockbuster long enough to illuminate the lasting impact of The Band's music. About an hour into the action, a small group of humans who have survived a virus that has killed off most of mankind while mutating apes into our intellectual equals heads into the ape-controlled forests north of San Francisco to repair a dam they hope could become a source of hydroelectric power. They succeed in their mission (temporarily) and soon come across a long-abandoned gas station. When the lights come up, so does some music, and the song is The Band's “The Weight.” The people begin dancing, and are granted a few minutes of warmth and reassurance in a movie filled with inter-species conflict. The moment doesn't last, but The Band's legacy has.
Originally released on The Band's 1968 album Music From Big Pink, “The Weight” was not a tremendous success for the group at the time, but in just a few years it had been recorded by Aretha Franklin as well as The Supremes and the Temptations, whose version reached No. 2 in 1969. Besides Dawn, it has appeared in the soundtrack of Judd Apatow's This Is 40, as well as Baby-Boomer touchstones The Big Chill and Easy Rider. According to Jim Weider, guitarist and singer for The Band's successors – who also happen to be called The Weight – the song taps into a deep longing for fellowship as present today as it was back in the '60s.
“Last night in Long Island, everybody sang,” Weider told the Press by phone earlier this week from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. “Young kids — there was a lot of young people there — knew every word. 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,' everybody was singing in the audience. The songs are so strong, and part of [the] fabric of America. They were really the first Americana band, if you want to label them.”
Although their roots lay in both Arkansas and Canada, The Band really emerged as a force in '60s rock as Bob Dylan's backup outfit on the road shortly after he “went electric,” as well as on the bootleg recording sessions eventually released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. After Big Pink, they recorded several more albums (Stage Fright, Cahoots) and became rock stars in their own right before re-joining Dylan for the Planet Waves album and tour in 1974. Beset with the usual rock-star excesses and exhaustions, the group decided to call it quits after one guest-packed final show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night 1976, which in turn became Martin Scorsese's 1978 film The Last Waltz. Because generations of fans have now been introduced to The Band through that movie, in some respects that's where their legend begins.
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But like a newer ring on a venerable old oak tree, The Weight's story began to take shape some time after that in Woodstock, long The Band's home base. Weider is a Woodstock native who recalls members of the group coming into the stereo-repair shop he worked at in high school; to them, he says, The Band were “hometown heroes.” Weider grew up to be a guitarist himself and, after several years in Nashville and Atlanta, he moved back home and began playing with drummer/singer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko.
Not long after that, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson also came back to the fold. Although “The Weight” author Robbie Robertson remained estranged, The Band reformed in 1985 and — although Weider says there was a “dark cloud” over the group when Manuel passed the next year — the group's second incarnation enjoyed a healthy 15-year run. They took on Richard Bell, the former keyboardist with Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie, as well as second drummer Randy Ciarlante. This version of The Band released the well-received albums Jericho, High On the Hog and Jubilation before Danko's death in 1999 brought this era to a close, and brought down the curtain on The Band for good.
“It was a more rock-powerful band than it was originally when I first joined,” recalls Weider of the latter-day version. “But it was nice. It sounded great. Everybody was doing well, and people dug it.”
In the aftermath of Danko's death, Helm founded the informal hootenannies known as “Midnight Rambles” at his home studio after surviving a bout with throat cancer; the concerts still take place at the same converted barn where The Band recorded albums like Jericho. (Weider says The Weight played one a few days ago and “it was fantastic.”) Before the Arkansas-born Helm passed away in 2012, he became a true elder statesman of Americana thanks to albums like Electric Dirt and Dirt Farmer. Weider eventually joined Helm's band, the Midnight Ramblers, whose ranks also included Ciarlante and future Weight members Byron Isaacs and Brian Mitchell. The circle became complete with the arrival of Marty Grebb, a former writing partner of Manuel's who has also played with Garth Hudson and Rick Danko's bands (“and sings like Richard Manuel,” Weider says).
Although their origins are about as circuitous as a “new” group's can probably be, The Weight has been an instant success. Weider says the shows have been selling out theater-size venues in major cities, as well as some smaller places in the Northeast. This trip will be their first time in the Southwest, and he laughs upon learning Dosey Doe's nickname of “The Big Barn.” The response to this band reminds him of the feeling he got when he began playing with Helm's All-Stars after Rick Danko passed, he says.
“I saw the response, that people really wanted to hear the songs again,” Weider explains. “It was really great to play them again. I took a long pause from it. It feels pretty good, and I know it's a big responsibility of what I was left with. And I wanted it to do it right, so I wouldn't do it until we got the right legacy of members.”
The Weight performs 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands. The dinner seating begins at 6 p.m.
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