Taking Percolator’s Pulse with Jim Weider
Part two: Playing in The Band
BR: Man, you’ve been right out straight for these past few months between the Project Percolator shows and the gigs with Levon Helm, haven’t you?
JW: Yeah, I’ve been going pretty strong and it’s been good. The Percolator shows back in the first part of the summer went really well and then it was great to be back in contact with Levon and playing with him again. I love his new record, Electric Dirt.
BR: You started doing gigs with Levon’s band this year after Jimmy Vivino left, correct?
JW: That’s right – Jimmy headed out to the West Coast to play with Conan O’Brien’s band, so Levon needed someone in that guitar role alongside Larry Campbell.
BR: … who might be playing anything with strings at any given time.
JW: Exactly! (laughs) For me, it’s a matter of having played with Levon since back in 1983 and knowing his drumming style. It’s easy for me to lock rhythmically with Levon on either electric or acoustic guitar and support the sound of the band. My role is to hold the foundation down so that Larry can do his thing on the fiddle or mandolin or whatever in the meantime.
BR: Plus, you’re doing lead work, as well …
JW: Oh, sure – Larry and I trade off solos, including those great old Band tunes that Levon and I used to play together. It’s a blend of lead and rhythm stuff … it’s a lot of fun.
BR: How did you and Levon originally connect?
JW: My roots were in the Woodstock area. I lived in Nashville for a while when I first started playing professionally, but moved back to Woodstock in 1983 to work with Robbie Dupree – and that’s where Levon was living, as well. I hooked up with him to play guitar in Levon Helm’s All-Stars, which led him to ask me to join The Band in 1985. It was so cool to be playing guitar with such a talented group of musicians – Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon. I’d grown up with that music and had always loved it … now I was going to be playing it – with those guys, you know? I jumped on board and the first gig – with no rehearsal – was in front of 30,000 people in Texas on the Crosby, Stills & Nash tour. And I was with them for the next 15 years, playing all over the world.
BR: But you did get a chance to rehearse …
JW: Well, the road was our rehearsal but, yeah … eventually … (laughter)
BR: So here’s a question – and I’m thinking about when the Other Ones first went out on the road in ’98 after Jerry Garcia died and they ended up with both Mark Karan and Steve Kimock splitting the lead guitar duties; Jimmy Herring filling Dickey Betts’ role after the parting with the Allmans; George McConnell joining Widespread Panic after Mike Houser died – and then, Jimmy Herring joining them after George left, okay? In each of those examples, you had a band whose original guitarist had a unique and distinctive style – and the guys who came after them had to decide how they were going to handle that. You certainly were up against a situation like that with The Band, coming aboard after Robbie Robertson. How did you handle the situation? Were you consciously thinking, “This is how Robbie played this,” or were you trying to break away from that sort of thing?
JW: That’s a good question – I know what you’re saying. The fact was, what Robbie did was a lot of those great little fills in a Steve Cropperish vein – all those great little trademark intros and whatnot. After I’d brought the song in with one of Robbie’s intros, my soloing was just however I felt – the guys in The Band just let me be me, which was great. You take a song like “Don’t Do It” – once I’d laid down that intro lick, I was free to play what I was feeling at that moment. The guys always told me, “Play what you feel.” Actually, I never really went back and listened to what Robbie did after 1970 or so.
BR: I always figured Robbie was another player who’d been inspired by Roy Buchanan … for instance, those sort of chimey harmonics and squeals he’d get by really choking up on the pick with his thumb.
JW: That’s right. And, really, a lot of the blues side of Robbie’s playing was influenced by Levon, too – just as it was for me. Levon is just the absolute heart and soul of the blues; when it came to learning about how to play a shuffle, and playing really raw country blues, that came from Levon. He was a big influence on me.
BR: That’s cool – even though he’s primarily a drummer?
JW: Oh, absolutely – it’s the feel that makes it. Between Levon and all the great people I was able to sit down and play music with by being in The Band – people like Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Jesse Ed Davis – I got to pretty much play with anybody I ever wanted to. (laughs)