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A conversation with JIM WEIDER, master of the telecasterby M.R. Smith

By all accounts, 2010 looks like a promising year for Woodstock guitarist Jim Weider, as he’s out there strong working double duty: fronting his own Project Percolator with drummer Rodney Holmes, bassist Steve Lucas, and guitarist Mitch Stein (recently with master guitarist and fellow Woodstocker Jesse Gress); and holding down the guitar chair once again for his good friend Levon Helm’s band, both on the road this summer and at the semi-monthly Midnight Rambles at Levon’s place (see for Ramble info/tickets).

For those unfamiliar with the man: as the guitarist for The Band—replacing Robbie Robertson—from 1985 to 2000, Jim made his stand with his ’52 Telecaster, bringing powerful tone and playing to the venerable group as it triumphantly carried on collectively and in various ensembles, until the tragic losses of both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Along with numerous appearances on tours and CD’s with the likes of Scotty Moore, Keith Richards, Los Lobos, Graham Parker, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Hot Tuna, Bob Weir, Johnny Paycheck, James Talley, Kim Wilson, Paul Butterfield, and Robbie Dupree, Jim has also produced and toured four solo releases, and is presently touring his most recent with Project Percolator, Pulse (2009).

But one thing you should know about Jim, if you don’t already. He is a master of the Fender Telecaster. One of the first great solid body guitars ever made, the Telecaster became—to many anyway—the “country music” electric guitar, its trebly chicken pick’n twang is prevalent on multiple country hits. But the Telecaster is actually also a truly great rock guitar, certainly as much as the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. And Jim Weider is one of the very select few who is an official endorser of this legendary axe. Picking, sliding, flat out rocking: Jim Weider has, to this humble reporter, an absolutely world-class feel and tone. And he’s humble as can be: when asked his favorite times playing with so many legends, he replies, “There were so many times. My favorite time is when everybody gets the music right, and everything’s just working good.”

Luckily, we caught him just before a quick Southern run with the Percolator…

What started the big love affair with the Fender Telecaster?

Well, you know, in the 60s the Telecaster was one of the most popular guitars, one of the most inexpensive of the great guitars. I think I got mine at Manny’s in New York City for $136, without the case.

What started me on it was I heard everybody was playing Tele’s back then in the early, mid 60s, on all those TV shows. It was my first really good guitar, and once I had a really good Telecaster, I just stuck with it. I liked the players who played it: Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, you’d see him with that blond Tele. I think even Clapton played one in the early years.

I always wanted one and when I went from a Japanese guitar to Fender Tele, it was just what I liked. Robbie Robertson with The Band came out and played a Tele…and then when I heard Roy Buchanan—who really influenced Jeff Beck—play the Telecaster like that, with feedback and cranking it up, that was it.

And actually, I must mention a local guy who was a big influence on me. Chris Zaloom was in a band called Fear Itself that used to play around town, and just was—and still is—a phenomenal Telecaster player. He had an Electro-Harmonix box stuck into it, got all this distortion and feedback…I really dug his playing back then as well.

You’re a true Woodstocker, born and raised, coming up through the musical heyday of the town through the late 60’s and 70s, during a time when some of the era’s great music was coming to your doorstep. How was that for you?

Well, in the late 60s and 70s, I didn’t really go anywhere; all the people who were here influenced my playing. The guys from the Band would sit in (on local gigs), Tim Hardin, Dylan of course. And then the guitarists that Paul Butterfield brought, “(Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop), Butterfield’s harp playing…and he had David Sanborn, with his attack on the horn, with Neil Larsen. Buzzy Feiten was a huge influence on my attack and touch on the guitar. Guys like John Hall, who was using a pick-and-fingers style…

I was really too young to go to the Fillmore in the early 60s, but all these people were playing and jamming here; there were seven bars in Woodstock, and every one had music six to seven nights a week. That was just Woodstock, everywhere you went outside of town there was music. So it was pretty cool. And when these cats were off the road, everybody would be playing. All these great players influenced me, whether they were horn players, or harp…or guitar.

When the members of The Band—sans Robbie Robertson—decided to reform and carry on in the mid-80s, they chose you for the guitar chair. How did that come about?

I’d left town in the 70s, traveled and moved to different places down South and L.A. Lived in Atlanta for a year, Nashville. Then finally, I moved back—I think it was ’82 or ’83—and Artie Traum said “Levon needs a guitar player at the Lone Star (Roadhouse, in New York City) and I can’t do it, can you?” I had done a gig with Levon with the All-Stars, and we had had a good time.

We became friends, and I started playing with him off and on. Then it became me and Rick (Danko) and Levon. Then Richard (Manuel) and Garth (Hudson) moved back, and they all went back on the road in ’85. Levon just asked me to come down to this place called The Getaway in Saugerties and said “why don’t you come on down and sit in?” I guess he wanted everybody else to hear me play in the group. But they were going out with the Cate Brothers Band (legendary Arkansas group), who had a full band with themselves.

I guess it was too much. They went out for about a week, and then they called and said “c’mon out on the road, play with us.” They wanted to bring the band back down to five people. Fifteen years later, and a lot of road miles….

Fast forward to your present band, Project Percolator, featuring some players from guitarist Steve Kimock’s band, based in California. How did you get hooked up with these guys?

I wanted to branch out of the “roots rock” records I had been making (Bigfoot, 2000; Remedy, 2002). I felt like I was writing myself into a corner; I wanted to get back into the R&B/funk groove thing that I’ve always liked, which really came from Feiten and Sanborn and all of those guys in the 60s & 70s doing that jazz/rock/funk thing way back then ahead of their time, the first fusion jam bands.

I wanted to get back into writing some different stuff, so I wrote this record called PERcoLAToR (2005) with the great John Holbrook (synthesizers, programming). We co-wrote a bunch of stuff together, he engineered it, pretty much did it in my home studio.

But I needed a drummer. I used to go down (to the city) and see Steve Kimock play, loved his style of writing and loved his guitar playing, always admired his band. I wasn’t even going to put drums on PERcoLAToR, but then I thought: what am I, nuts? Why would I just use a loop? I emailed Rodney (Holmes, drummer for Kimock) and he just happened to be free. He played some amazing stuff. And, of course, I got Randy Ciarlante—great drummer I worked with for many years—on a beautiful tune called “Prayer.”

I wrote a new record called Pulse (2009) that was recorded live with the band, (now including bassist Steve Lucas and guitarist Mitch Stein) about a year and a half ago at Allaire Studio, in three days. I really wanted to capture what we were doing. We were playing all new music out live, except for two or three tunes. Went in, tracked it in three days, and been pretty much playing it out now. It’s been accepted well, and it’s fun to play!

So with guitarist/bandleader Jimmy Vivino gone with the Conan O’Brien show, you’re back with Levon’s band again. How will that work out with the Percolator project?

I’m trying to keep both. You know, the Levon thing has been a blast; that’s an amazing band, and it’s great to get with him again. We’ve played together so many years, we play really well together, have this good rhythmic connection it’s great to revisit again. He’s playing at the top of his game, his voice is coming back again.

But I’m trying to keep Percolator Project going in between Levon’s tours. We’re going down South next week. I’m trying to make it balance, and hoping it can work like that.

You put some miles out there on the road and in the studio, much of it working on, producing, and touring your own music. What’s your take on the changes in the music biz in terms of how you put it out there, to get the public to the music, and vice versa?

Well, it’s a harder road now than ever because there are really big acts…and then there’s your more regional acts who are really struggling because now a lot of venues aren’t open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays. So, it’s really hard to tour. There used to be clubs open six or seven days a week, and people actually going to them—as you can remember. But the older generation of our age don’t go out as much.

I think in the younger generation, there’s one section that really digs this music. The jam band thing is really cool because they really support live music, and there’s a whole vibe out there that’s not just “jam,” or whatever you want to call it. There’s a strength out there, they support the music whether it’s bluegrass, funk-rock, whatever you do, as long as you’re playing up to your par, your skills. They’ll get behind you.

That’s cool, but there’s a whole nother section of young people who just don’t go out and support live music, who I think we missed, as musicians. But you know what? It’ll come around, they’ll just get tired of watching music on the computer, and they might want to get out and really experience it, they way we used to. The way we still do. Nothing like going out and hearing a live band perform, and interact with the audience.

Any contemporary artist you’d like to work with sometime, that you haven’t already?

Well, I always like really, really good songwriters. I really like David Gray’s writing, like to play some stuff with him as a songwriter. He writes strong lyrics. There are a lot of good songwriters out that are up-and-coming, which is great to hear. It’s a tough question! I’d like to go out with a great keyboard player; I love John Medeski’s playing. A lot of folks I’d like the opportunity to play with, hard to nail down just one.

As we said before, you're a Woodstocker, born and raised…ever on the road playing music. What keeps you coming back?

It’s where I grew up. The only way I’d leave here is to go a month or two to Mexico—I really like it! This is my home, and the roots run deep. Out here with the music and the mountains, and the people I grew up with. It’s a really special place; you can leave here, and you’ll always want to come back. Something about the Catskills, the Hudson Valley—it’s far enough away from New York City, yet close enough to not be isolated artistically. It’s nice that there are enough artistic people around here, so you don’t have to have a fur trapper outfit on!

Fur trapping outfits aren’t so bad actually…

I could have used one about a month ago.

Jim Weider performs with Blues legend Hubert Sumlin Thursday May 13 at B. B. King Blues Club & Grill, 237 W. 42nd St., New York City;

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