by JT Leonard Coastal Journal contributor
The Weight is not The Band, but it might as well be.
Before he died in 2012, founding member, drummer and singer Levon Helm requested that The Band’s music live on through continued performance. October 8, before a near-capacity crowd at the Opera House in Boothbay Harbor, five musicians with varying connections to The Band breathed new life into two hours of the classic Americana roots group’s music and, in the process, prolonged a musical legacy that began in Toronto more than 40 years ago.
The Band’s original lineup of Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko honed its sound first backing up American blues rocker Ronnie Hawkins and later Bob Dylan when he went electric.
Years after, when original members either left the group (Robertson), passed away (Manuel and Danko) or started side projects, the various members of The Weight - guitarist and bandleader Jim Weider, drummer and vocalist Randy Ciarlante, bassist/ singer Albert Rogers, and keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists and singers Marty Grebb and Brian Mitchell - stepped into the respective voids.
Put another way, The Weight largely is an alternate version of The Band itself, and its members’ respective intertwined histories made them the natural choice to carry out Helm’s wish.
Throughout the evening, the quintet burned new life into 20 old Band songs. The set list included “greatest hits” staples “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia,” “Time to Kill,” “Stage Fright,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Nobody Knows (But Me),” “Life’s A Carnival,” “King Harvest,” The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Shape I’m In,” and “Wheels On Fire.” Prior set lists and upcoming tour dates can be found on theweightband.com.
While the Opera House set list didn’t vary much from recent performances, the sequence allowed for The Weight’s members to stretch out with extended solos, on-the-fly set list changes, anecdotes and stories of road life and, in some cases, moments of just plain silliness.
In one, after relating how his mother insisted that he take accordion lessons (“So I wouldn’t look like an Italian gangster - like my uncles!”), Mitchell chased Weider away from his mandolin with the admonishment, “I want to rock and roll!”
Weider complied by picking up his guitar, and the gravelly-piped Mitchell led his friends through a frenetic arrangement of “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.” After a protracted barrelhouse, boogie-woogie piano ending, Mitchell flashed the audience a spotlight grin and “devil horns” with both hands.
Later, near the end of the show, while Weider and Mitchell again traded solos during “Shape I’m In,” Grebb left his piano bench to dance with a silver-haired lady just off stage left.
Acknowledged as the unofficial band leader, Weider coaxed a muscular guitar tone from his trademark Fender Telecaster through a tiny Vibrolux amp. He used a modest effects chain to dial grit and growl into aggressive licks that Robertson either couldn’t or wouldn’t play on the originals, but never overstepped the bounds of the song.
Ciarlante swatted a minimalist kit, the influence of Helm’s bayou country-folk style evident with each fill. For Rogers’s part, whether by intention or simply because he’s been singing the songs for so long, at times his voice almost was indistinguishable from Danko’s unique wailing tenor.
Mitchell and Grebb frequently traded seats between a modern Kawai synth keyboard and a very vintage and road-scuffed Hammond B3, its ubiquitous spinning speaker cabinet totally at home producing music first written more than 40 years ago.
My first memory of The Band is hearing “The Weight” on the radio as a young child while riding in the car with my father. I clearly recall being mesmerized by the music and utterly baffled by the lyrics - an allegory-filled narrative penned by Robertson.
Its appearance during The Weight’s current tour has varied from date to date but, at the Opera House, the namesake song was the only logical choice for the closing number. Like the original recording, the various members each sang one of the song’s first three verses. This time, however, instead of the band combining for the final verse, Weider, Grebb and Mitchell traded four-bar solos before inviting the crowd to sing the last stanza - which it did with appropriate fervor.
An extended and tear-inducing encore of “Forever Young” closed the night, leaving The Weight to carry on now what The Band was then - except maybe even a little bit better.
JT Leonard is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. He lives in