Jim Weider, guitarist with the Band: Something Else! Interview

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Woodstock native Jim Weider got to live out a musician’s dream, having been a fan of the Band at the turn of the 1970s before eventually joining Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson from 1985-99.

That life-long passion also makes him the perfect figure to pay tribute to the Band, as he and a group of like-minded musicians dubbed the Weight stops in at the rustic Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock on November 30, 2013, for a night of music and remembrance. The late Helm established this cozy musical space in the mid-1970s, just before the Band’s initial split, and began holding celebrated concert events called Midnight Rambles there in 2004, after a devastating initial bout of health problems.

Helm would pass in 2012, when his cancer returned, but the Rambles have continued — with some functioning as fundraisers to maintain the Helm Studio space, known fondly as the Barn.

Weider, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, talks about participating in some of those early Rambles, taking over for original guitarist Robbie Robertson in the reunited Band, a trio of studio efforts before co-founding bassist Rick Danko’s sudden death in 1999, projects away from the Band with Mavis Staples and Project Percolator, and the emotions associated with returning to the Barn …

NICK DERISO:This month’s show at Barn sets up as a deeply resonant experience for you. You got to know each of the Band’s departed singers, having toured with Richard Manuel before his 1986 death, as well.
JIM WEIDER: Certain tunes just hit you differently after all these years. You think about the different guys, and certain songs really hit me strong. But I hadn’t really thought about doing it, really, until I did this show with some of the guys — Randy Ciarlante (a member of the Band from 1990-99), Byron Isaacs (a collaborator in the Levon Helm Band), Ramble regular Jimmy Vivino (Al Kooper, the Fab Faux) and (co-founding Band multi-instrumentalist) Garth Hudson. We did a couple of shows like this at the Barn. Then we took it out to a couple of theaters, and it went over very well. Vivino has been very busy with the Fab Faux, so we put it together with Brian Mitchell from the Levon band, me, Randy, Byron — and we got lucky to get Marty Grebb (a sideman on the Band’s 1998 Jubilation project who’s also worked with Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and others), a fantastic organist and singer. He had done a couple of shows with Garth and (Sister) Maud (Hudson’s wife and long-time musical partner). It went really well, and we really enjoyed it. He sings amazing, really has a lot of soul. So, it’s nice. We can split the vocals all around, everybody’s singing — all five of us. We did a couple of shows, and they sold out at these small theaters, and (longtime Helm manager) Barbara (O’Brien) asked me to come to the Barn. We’re really looking forward to it. We’re going to do everything from Big Pink through Cahoots, all of the classic tunes — and some that I have never played before, even after being in the Band for so long. Tunes we never did live, like “Kingdom Come. Marty says he wants to try “In a Station.”

[ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE: Nick DeRiso is exploring the Band’s stirring song-by-song musical legacy, both together and as solo artists, in a weekly series that runs on Thursday mornings.]

NICK DERISO: For the uninitiated, what were those original Midnight Rambles like?
JIM WEIDER: I did, I think, one of the first ones. Levon invited me over, and invited Randy over. And it was great. They were all great. It just grew. Everybody gets very close, very intimate. You get to be part of the band, and see how the band feels. You really get a feeling like you’re right there with the music. That’s the way it was, when you played there — and it still is. We haven’t done as many there lately; the last one I did was when I did a ballad night with (Helm’s daughter) Amy and a big band. It was a blast. People really had a good time. It’s just musical in there, and the room is musical, too.

NICK DERISO: Your relationship with Levon Helm goes back to your youth in Woodstock. Describe the music scene back then.
JIM WEIDER: It was great. Those guys were like hometown heroes for me. I met Levon probably in ’69, ’70. There must have been six bars in Woodstock, and every one had music six, seven nights a week. Guys from (saxophonist) Dave Sanborn to Buzz Feiten (Butterfield Blues Band, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan) to the guys in the Band. One guy would maybe come by and sit in, every once in a while. They didn’t really play in town. But a lot of Butterfield’s band would sit in, John Hall (Orleans, Seals and Crofts, John Simon), the guys who were based here. It was always really exciting. It was just really musical. Everybody was playing, and honing their chops and talent. It was a really exciting musical time. For me, I didn’t have to go anywhere to learn so much.

NICK DERISO: Despite that long history with Levon, it couldn’t have been easy stepping in for a renowned guitarist like Robbie Robertson. What were your goals when it came to putting your own stamp on things?
JIM WEIDER: There were those trademark licks that Robbie did, like the intros to tunes like “It Makes No Difference” and “Walcott,” those riffs that he wrote the songs around. Those are expected to be played, of course. But, when it came to soloing, I could just pretty much play the way I felt. I grew up with a kind of roots rock ‘n’ roll, country blues, rockabilly style. A little bit of everything was mixed in — it’s that Woodstock kind of thing. The Band is a big part of that sound. They really developed that kind of genre-crossing sound, where you heard Southern blues, R&B along with rockabilly and folk. Mixing it all up, that’s the Woodstock sound.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Garth Hudson joined us for an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown to connect the dots between his early influences and the Band’s later rootsy triumphs.]

NICK DERISO: You’re an example of that rare guitarist who uses your fingers as well as a plectrum. That gives your guitar a much broader palette of sounds. Why don’t more guitarists do both?
JIM WEIDER: You know, I guess you get hung up on one thing. I happened to see John Hall play like that in the late ’60s, or maybe in 1970, at Rose’s Cantina in town — and I said: “Hey, wait a minute. Pick and fingers. I can do some other stuff with those fingers, and work the pick!” I really dug that. You can change your tone with your fingers, but the combination just opened more doors on the guitar for me. Some guys can move the pick really fast and, for me, using the pick and fingers, I could get to stuff easier.

NICK DERISO: Take us into the history of the song “Remedy,” which opened 1993’s Jericho, your first album with the Band.
JIM WEIDER: I thought Jericho, overall, had some really good stuff. You could pick it apart, everybody including me, but I was very proud of that album. That was a great period for the Band. We were sounding great, in 1993, ’94, ’95. Everybody was doing great; everybody was healthy. And we had a cool band with Randy Ciarlante on drums with Levon, the great Richard Bell (with the Band from 1992-99, he has also worked with Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield and Dylan), along with Garth, Rick and Levon, of course. It was powerful, a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll version, and it fit the times. “Remedy” was a tune I co-wrote with Colin Linden (Bruce Cockburn, David Wilcox), a good buddy of mine. I had this idea of “you’ve got the cure, you’ve got the remedy,” and we just got together and sat down and worked on it until we got the music. He did a lot of the lyrics; he’s a really strong lyric writer. He took my chorus, worked on the chords, and got the music happening — and those guys dug it. I was really excited that it was the first song ever recorded by all of us. It was exciting to have a song on a Band record. We were very honored.

[REMEMBERING LEVON HELM: We celebrate the late Levon Helm’s stirring contributions both as a solo artist and as the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band.]

NICK DERISO: A clearly rejuvenated Band began appearing at some huge events during that period, from Roger Waters’ Wall celebration in Berlin, to the Bob Dylan anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, to Woodstock ’94. That must have been a whirlwind experience for you.
JIM WEIDER: It really was. I owe it all to Levon. He’s the one who pulled me into the group. He always had my back on that. And that gave my such confidence. When I first joined, they just really made me feel really comfortable. Everybody in the Band was very cool, laid back and let you do your thing. You were there because they liked your playing, and liked your vibe, and liked your personality. Those guys were just really down-to-earth guys, all of them. I miss them, greatly.

NICK DERISO: “White Cadillac” was a wonderful tribute to Ronnie Hawkins, with Randy taking a rare lead. How did that one come together?
JIM WEIDER: It grew out of some of Levon’s stories. Randy had written most of words and we got together, the three of us, and we finished it up. Randy, by the way, is singing better than ever, and playing drums better than ever. I’m really, really excited to be back working with Randy again. He has a great voice, and a great feel for the Band’s music, having been on the road for so long with us. He’s sounding fantastic, and it’s really exciting for us to be able to come back and relive these tunes.

NICK DERISO: Describe what it was like working with Mavis Staples on the W.C. Handy award-winning “Have a Little Faith”? She remains just a force of nature.
JIM WEIDER: I just got asked to come out and play guitar on the record with my good friend (album co-producer) Jim Tullio, and I had this music — this riff. I went out there a few days ahead of time, and me and Jim wrote the song. It was like the last few days. Mavis came in, and I was doing some overdubs, and I said: “Well, we’ve got this one other tune. Maybe you’ll like it.” She heard the tune, and she liked it. She really liked it. So, I was ecstatic, because she is one of my ultimate, all-time favorite singers. She’s just really great. As they say, she could sing the Yellow Pages and make it soulful. She’s pretty amazing. That was a huge thrill, and we got to win an award for it, too. Levon loved her, you know. She came up and did some stuff, and he was so excited that she could play and record with us. That hasn’t been released, but we did a whole live album with the Midnight Ramble Band and Mavis. I hope eventually that will be released.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Amy Helm, daughter of the Band’s Levon Helm, discusses the uplifting moments surrounding the Barn that have followed her father’s too-early passing.]

NICK DERISO: I’ve been intrigued by Project Percolator, a groove-focused group that surprised a lot of people who associated you with rootsier sounds. Are there plans for another album?
JIM WEIDER: I have a live album out, though I haven’t really advertised that much. It’s on my web site. But I’ve started working on a writing a bunch of tunes. I was working with Avi Bortnick, co-writing with him. He plays with (jazz guitarist John) Scofield, and he’s written a lot of stuff. He was playing with me at the time, then I’ve kind of gotten really busy with live stuff again. This winter, I’m hoping to finish writing all of these songs. I’ve got about eight or nine things, half way done. I need to go through them, and hopefully pull them together and put out another record. I’d like to do it. I love playing with those guys. It’s always a blast.

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