Jim Weider, Marty Grebb & Byron Isaacs
The Bell House, Brooklyn, New York
Originally aired April 2015 on BBOX Radio from Brooklyn, NY.
Interview edited for length and clarity. All rights reserved.
We all know and have heard of, and love The Band. If anything you know they as Bob Dylan's backing band. I love 'em because of the accessibility by which they made roots rock, folk, and Americana music. We won't hold the fact that they're from Canada deter my narrative.
The purists interpret folk music as being a guy with a guitar plucking away his melancholy, but The Band show that it's okay to add some flair. Throw in a keyboard, some harmonica, the swinging voice of Levon Helm, and boom: you got stuff like "Ophelia," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Rag Mama Rag," and "The Weight." Side note: That guy from Nazareth who didn't have a place for that dude to stay was kind of a dick.
Now, it's not all peaches and cream. Plenty of The Band's history is clouded with bullshit like lawsuits and fights between members – most notably between Levon and Robbie over song authorship. You'll hear in a few minutes, that it's still a pretty sore subject, but one that I'd be remiss to ask about because it explains how everyone ended up at The Bell House in Brooklyn on Friday night.
The group of guys now keeping the music alive is called The Weight. It consists of Jim Weider – who played with the Band from 1985 to 2000. Randy Ciarlante – the drummer from the second reincarnation of The Band, Byron Isaacs who played in the Levon Helm Band, Brian Mitchell, also a member of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble Band, and Marty Grebb who played with Rich Danko, and who knows the music front and back.
The show itself was incredible. Intimate venue, cheap beer, a lot of cheap beer, actually, more cheap beer, and hit after Band hit. The crowd was a mix of folks who lost their virginity when Johnson was President, annoying white girls talking about annoying white girl things, and dudes in flannel....so really just people from Brooklyn.
But the ferocity by which Jim shredded his Fender guitar made the white girls put down their phones. Watching Marty play saxophone and piano at the same time made the craft beer taste so much sweeter. And the group – playing songs that could very much be the soundtrack of your life had me thinking about the couple in the back of that '66 Chevy Chevelle, sign that voting rights legislation Mr. President, umm hmm lo loo ohh ho hooo.
Ladies and Gentlemen - Jim Weider, Byron Isaacs, and Marty Grebb
Jesse Regis: How's everything going?
Jim Weider: Everything's going great. We're heading down for a southern tour starting on Wednesday in Birmingham. We're all looking forward to hitting the south. It's really cold, so we can't wait to hit the south.
JR: That must be a very different vibe. The crowds are different the scene is different.
JW: Southern people love music. Not that New York people don't love music, but you'll get young folks out and young folks out down south. It's always been like that. They love music down there.
JR: You guys were just over in Newton, New Jersey. I'm from right near - there that's my scene.
JW: Jersey love! Jersey gets a lot of love.
JR: If I read my history correctly, this whole thing got started with Mr. Jimmy Vivino of Conan O'Brien's band.
JW: Jimmy Vivino and Byron started playing with Garth [Hudson].
Byron Isaacs: It was Jimmy Vivino's idea to get Garth out playing again. Garth wasn't doing much at the time. He wanted to do Band songs and stick really close to The Band arrangements and then let Garth just rip on them. The one thing that stood out that was different than the recordings was Garth just doing his Garth thing, which always was very improvisational, and really coming from another planet. So it was really fun. We did a bunch of them. Jimmy Vivino was definitely leading the charge on that at the time.
JW: Then Jimmy said let's go play a couple of theater shows and he got Randy [Ciarlante] and me involved. I said well if Garth's doing it, I'll do it. I never thought of even doing this, really. It sold out. It was a blast. Garth and Maud [Hudson] were going to Japan and Marty Grebb was playing with them. Vivino was busy with Conan. I talked to Randy, I said why don't we do it? Why don't we do it. It was so much fun at the theaters it sold out. Let's see if Marty is available. Marty was available.
BI: Unfortunately, Garth was unable to continue doing it with us.
JW: Because Garth was with Maud playing their shows. Basically, that's how it began. We did a couple of shows - it sold out. I said, man, we're digging deep into the catalogue, it's fun, I haven't played this music since...in the Ramble band we always did a few Band tunes, but really since The Band quit when we lost Rick [Danko] at the end of 1999 we stopped playing. I went off and I did my records and my thing.
Marty Grebb: Jim [Weider] and Randy [Ciarlante] were in The Band when that happened, right?
JW: Yeah. So, we stopped and then when we started doing it again. It was such a blast. I said let's do it and it works. We're on a little bit of a roll here – it's rolling on its own. It's got its own wheels and we're taking the ride, and thanks to the public everyone seems to be enjoying it.
MG: Byron [Isaacs] and Brian [Mitchell] had been in Levon's band, and I had been in Rick's [Danko] band, and I had written songs with Richard [Manuel] and toured with Levon, too. So, I had that connection. Plus, the connection with Garth [Hudson] so there's all this connection.
BI: It's all inside. We're more of a legacy band than a tribute band. Actually, we've begun working up original material. We're going to have an EP coming probably within the year.
JW: That's our plan. To go in and cut some tracks in the summer and into the fall and have an original record The Weight. And if people want to see The Weight Band they can go to the website or the Facebook. Come on out and hear the show. We're digging deep into the catalogue and we're having fun.
JR: Marty was mentioning Levon's band, and you got The Midnight Ramble Band. You got all of these different projects going on. Was it hard for you guys to come together? You all know the same songs, but was it hard to work out the arrangement? Was it hard to know what everyone was doing, or were you all on the same page from the beginning?
JW: Me and Byron [Isaacs] and Brian Mitchell, great keyboard player and singer, were in Levon's band. We had already been playing some of these tunes. Me and Randy were in The Band. We were playing a lot of these tunes. Marty [Grebb] has played tunes with Rick [Danko]. So, by the combination of us all doing our own homework, coming in and doing shows, we worked out. And, we keep changing the show every show – adding new tunes in. So, it keeps us excited, and hopefully people are enjoying it. When people call out into the audience we try to do it. If we have it, we'll do it.
JR: You mentioned that you're putting out a new record. Record companies have always given The Band a hard time. Given that The Band has done so well, do they still give you a hard time?
JW: I have no idea. There's no more record stores – don't get me started [laughs]. Record companies are weird, the record business is weird. We're just going to make a record because we want to make an original record with all these great musicians that I am so lucky to be with, and see what we can come up with in this point of our lives – and making great music. That's basically what it was always about in The Band – was making great music.
MG: I don't think it was so much hard, as it was desire. Everyone really went, wow we can do this! He can sing high, and he can do that, and it was just all this stuff. We're very fortunate to have who we have because if, for example, if any of the guys in the band who had not been doing what they were doing it wouldn't have fit together. If Byron [Isaacs] wasn't the bass player... and he sang, everyone sings. We're really very, very fortunate that it worked out how it has. It could have not been that way.
JR: In preparing for this interview I did not read a single thing that didn't say quote, “then I met Levon, we became friends, and I joined The Band.”
JR: How much of Levon is at every show? How much of him is still with you guys? How much of him do you bring to the stage?
JW: I think about him every day, I really do. I played with him for over 30 years. We've been through just about everything. He's up there on a big fluffy cumulus cloud with his head rocking back...
BI: ...Laughing his ass off.
JW: ...Going go on boys, you're doing good, one more show, you've got it!
JR: What is one myth about The Band that just drives you absolutely bonkers?
MG: I would say things about how much involvement all of them had to do with the music and maybe Robbie Robertson getting too much attention in that regard. Great songwriter, can't say enough about that, respect, and all the accolades. But, without those guys there to organize that music and arrange it and do everything they did and harmonize and all that – it was a very shared thing. So, that does bother me at times.
BI: It was extremely compositional with what they brought to the arrangements and even lyrically, if not pen to paper, there was a lot of directing lyrics, curating the lyrics, that happened with The Band members. Lyrics would change because of their input and the whole sound of songs would change in a very compositional way, not just arrangement, by their input so, I agree, Marty, that's the main thing I think people should know.
JW: A band, called The Band, becomes a band because of all the people in it working together. What's the word I used today, symbiotically? [laughs]. The big word.
BI: You did.
JW: Does that work for this, my college professor?
BI: Yeah, it was symbiotic and very democratic.
MG: Richard [Manuel] and Rick [Danko] both wrote with Bob Dylan, for example. Those songs sometimes fall by the wayside a bit as far as acknowledgement and recognition. At first, Robbie [Robertson] acknowledged Richard as an equal in the writing thing then that sort of changed and morphed into this whole other thing. Here and there it bothers me, but it is what it is.
JR: In general, was it blown out of proportion? You have your legal crap and your riffs between members, but I'm wondering how much of it was blown out of proportion and became a tall tale over time.
BI: The fight between those guys and Robbie is well known. The thing is, to know these people personality wise shows you a little bit, too. The fact is, most of the guys in The Band didn't care too much about the industry. They didn't care too much. They weren't very ambitious in that sort of industry way. They cared about the music. Very focused on the music. Robbie, personality wise, that guy cares a lot about his public image, a lot. Still does. I would love to give you an example on record, but I can't, of very recently of him pulling a publicity stunt that was uncalled for.
MG: I know some of those, too. I can vouch for that.
BI: He's a publicity hound. Always was, still is to this day. It's a shame. In my opinion, it's a personality flaw. If it weren't for that, none of that shit would have ever happened because I think he had a very pure and sweet heart that was the foundation of their friendships. They were very deep at one time. When it came down too it, he cared a lot more about the limelight than any of those guys did, and so he took it. He took it at every opportunity he could and he made sure to get himself on top every time in the public opinion.
JR: Jim, based on your reaction it seems that you're tired of even talking about it. You want to focus on the music more than anything [all laugh].
JW: Yeah, it's all about the music, man. The Band was always about the music. After being with Levon, and Richard and Rick, they were all about making music and making people happy. Playing music the best you can 110% every night. That's all we ever did and that's all I ever strived for. Because I was with such great players I was lucky enough to be with them and learn that lesson when I was in my younger years.
JR: And you move on to do better things. What's the big goal for The Weight?
JW: The big goal of The Weight, tonight, is to knock these people out, and dance in the aisles and have some fun.
MG: Sing along.
JW: We're going to make a new record. We're going to make an original record. That's one of our big goals. We're in no rush. We got a great catalogue to play. We're playing the songs that people love to hear and we all love ourselves.