On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, more than 800 all-ages fans packed Brooklyn Bowl to dance, cheer and sing along as a group of world-class musicians revisited The Band’s Rock of Ages live album. That record, compiled from a series of three shows played at New York’s Academy of Music culminating on New Year’s Eve 1971, is considered by many to be one of the best live rock albums of all time, and represents The Band at the height of their powers.
On this night, the players were members of The Weight, a group composed of musicians who played and collaborated with members of The Band, augmented by a horn line led by Clark Gayton, who played low horns in Levon Helm’s Ramble Band. Members of The Weight include Jimmy Weider (guitar, mandolin) and Randy Ciarlante (drums), from the second incarnation of The Band, formed after the departure of Robbie Robertson. Byron Isaacs (bass) and Brian Mitchell (keys, accordion, melodica) played with Gayton in Helm’s Ramble Band, and Marty Grebb (keys, guitar, saxophone) worked with both Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.
Like The Band, the members of The Weight all sing harmony and trade off on lead vocals. For the most part, they didn’t seek to imitate the original versions, but often added their own special magic, notably Isaacs’ mournful wail on “Unfaithful Servant” and Mitchell’s growly take on “The Shape I’m In.” Ciarlante, like his friend and mentor Helm, nailed his many lead vocals without missing a drumbeat. With no visible effort, his “Rag Mama Rag” was a tour de force. Weider, bandleader for The Weight, sings less than the others but his fiery guitar solos are the equal of anything played on the record. He gave “King Harvest” the edgy feel of the original and played gorgeous mandolin on “Rocking Chair.”
Formed in 2013, a year after Helm passed, The Weight has been touring extensively and polishing their versions of some of The Band’s classic songs so the integrity of the music has been well preserved. The difference this time was the horns, shining up every song with elegant arrangements courtesy of Gayton and Tom “Bones” Malone, who donated horn charts he wrote or kept for The Last Waltz, The Band’s 1976 farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco.
The Weight played one set of nine songs at the beginning of the night, including Band favorites “Stage Fright,” “The Shape I’m In” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” staples of their repertoire. After a short break, the band returned with the big guns: the King Harvest Horns – Lauren Sevian (baritone saxophone), Aaron Heick (saxophone), James K. Smith (trumpet) and Gayton (trombone, sousaphone).
The late Allen Toussaint wrote the horn arrangements for the original concert, but many fans are more familiar with Malone’s versions from The Last Waltz. Those included “Don’t Do It,” “Ophelia,” “The Weight,” “Chest Fever,” “Life is A Carnival,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Gayton’s elegant charts for “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show,” “Caledonia Mission,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Unfaithful Servant,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “King Harvest” and the encore, “(I Don’t Want to Hang up My) Rock and Roll Shoes,” made some reference to Toussaint’s idiosyncratic arrangements, but sounded shiny and brand new. Horn arrangements are a complicated business, requiring considerable time and thought. But on some rare occasions, it comes quickly. Of note: “It Makes No Difference” was arranged by Gayton and Helm in his kitchen minutes before a long-ago Ramble. This night’s version featured Marty Grebb vocals and closed with his exquisite soprano saxophone solo.
Video courtesy of Jim Zisson.
The Weight, minus the horns, is still on tour.
For dates visit http://www.theweightband.com
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism