Home >Lounge >Features >Opinion I Carrying The Weight of The Band

Few bands have delved as deeply into the roots of rock music as The Band, formed in the late 1960s. Till the mid-1970s, few bands were as influential as this group, originally made up of four Canadian musicians and one American. Their history goes back further, however—towards the end of the 1950s, they were called The Hawks and were a backing band for the singer Ronnie Hawkins. In the mid-1960s, they backed Bob Dylan, touring with him when he first turned, somewhat controversially, to electric music. They came into their own in 1968, when they released their first full-length studio album, Music From Big Pink.

With that album, which introduced listeners to their trademark sound—a blend of rock, country, folk, R&B and soul—began their best era. At its height, The Band comprised Robbie Robertson (lead guitar), Levon Helm (drums), Richard Manuel (piano, organ), Rick Danko (bass) and Garth Hudson (keyboards, saxophone, accordion). Interestingly, four of the five members could sing lead vocals, each bringing his unique style to the group’s repertoire. Music from Big Pink was followed by the self-titled album The Band (1969) and Stage Fright (1970). Seven more studio albums would follow, some after they broke up and re-formed without a couple of the original members. But they could never rekindle the original spark when they re-formed, and for many fans, music from Big Pink has remained The Band’s iconic studio album.

For others, the last performance by the original configuration of The Band—documented in the iconic Martin Scorsese-directed film The Last Waltz (1978) and in the record by the same name—is the go-to destination for experiencing one of rock music’s finest performances. For that concert, The Band invited a constellation of rock, blues and country music’s biggest stars. The guests included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and Neil Diamond, all of whom performed with The Band. The album (as also Scorsese’s documentary) is a must-have in any rock fan’s collection.

But why this sudden flashback to a band and an era long gone? After all, three of the original members of the quintet (Helm, Danko and Manuel) are dead. The reason is The Weight Band, a new-ish group that originated around 2013. Lore suggests that The Weight Band was nurtured and formed by The Band’s original drummer and singer, Helm, who continued playing gigs even after he was diagnosed with cancer, and who wanted The Band’s music to continue into the future. The Weight Band, also a quintet, began by playing covers of The Band’s songs in a barn owned by Helm in Woodstock, New York. Since then, they have evolved into a full-fledged band, doing their versions of The Band’s songs but also original compositions that are astonishingly redolent of that group’s sound.

As long-time fans of The Band know, The Weight is a song from Music From Big Pink. Written by Robertson and sung on that album by Helm and Danko, it is one of The Band’s most popular songs, one that hooks you from the get-go (I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead/ I just need some place where I can lay my head/ Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?/ He just grinned and shook my hand, ‘no’, was all he said). It is apt, then, that a group which carries forward the legacy of The Band chose to call itself The Weight Band.

In 2018, The Weight Band—consisting of Jim Weider (guitarist and frontman), Randy Ciarlante (drums and vocals), Albert Rogers (bass and vocals), and Marty Grebb and Brian Mitchell (both are multi-instrumentalists and also sing)—released their first full-length album of mostly original compositions, World Gone Mad. Some of the musicians were part of Helm’s band after his original group broke up. On World Gone Mad, the quintet sounds so much like The Band that it can feel eerie. Their music is flush with influences of Americana, country, soul and jazz, just as The Band’s was, and for fans of that erstwhile group, it is like a delightful flashback.

Early this month, The Weight Band released Live Is A Carnival (the title is a reference to The Band’s song Life Is A Carnival), a live album of 14 songs that include covers of The Band’s popular numbers (The Weight, Stagefright, Don’t Do It, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag and others) but also original songs. It’s a lively performance, reviving the spirit of the late 1960s/mid-1970s rock scene and one that gets close to what The Band could have sounded like if they were still around.

Sometimes new bands that try to recreate the sound of iconic bands can sound like they are trying too hard. And even if they try to do original music, they can sound annoyingly like also-rans to serious listeners. It’s easy to get tired of them. Example: The American band Greta Van Fleet (their only studio album to date is Anthem Of The Peaceful Army), whose sound nearly imitates that of Led Zeppelin, lose their novelty factor pretty quickly after a few listens.

The Weight Band don’t, possibly because of the genre. The Band’s looseness and willingness to experiment with blends of different styles, and the variety of vocals that they offered, are elements that The Weight Band have adopted. The title song on World Gone Mad is an example of how they are able to do that and yet sound original. If The Band needed a carrier of their legacy, The Weight Band can certainly do the heavy lifting.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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