Max Weinberg brings big-band sound to The Ark in Ann ArborWritten by Chris Kozak | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Talking to Max Weinberg is a lot like listening to him drum: tight, precise and concise. No stammers or stutters or miscues.
For more than 36 years, Weinberg has served as the drummer — the steady, precise and concise backbone — of the legendary E Street Band, the musical muscle behind Bruce Springsteen. He’s also become a star in his own right, stepping out as the musical director for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” before following O’Brien to 11:30 p.m. to lead the Tonight Show Band on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”
“I’ve had the good fortune to have two different, but both incredible situations,” Weinberg said in a recent phone interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
With the E Street Band on vacation, and the recent announcement that Weinberg won’t be joining O’Brien on his move to TBS, Weinberg is on the road with his new project: The Max Weinberg Big Band, which, quite literally, swings into Ann Arbor’s The Ark on Oct. 23.
It’s a 15-piece band (12 horns, bass guitar, piano and, of course, drums) that Weinberg describes as a “pastiche of blues, rock rhythm and blues, big band, swing, roadhouse, stripper music — its all in there.”
“The kind of music we’re playing is very assertive, very muscular — someone once referred to it as East Coast muscle. I can’t disagree with that. It’s not sitting at the back of the club snapping your fingers, it’s barrel house, roadhouse, stand up, move your body, big band-swing.”
Despite nearly four decades in the iconic E Street Band, playing stadium rock ’n’ roll, Weinberg gravitated to the big-band swing style during his time on “Late Night.”
“Back in the ’90s, with the type of music I created in the original ‘Late Night’ program, the direction I wanted to go was sort of jump-blues, rhythm and blues, with a little bit of swing. I wanted to bring that dotted 8th and dotted 16th note pulse back to television.
“I’ve been interested in (big band) musically since the time I was a little, little boy. If you’re my age — I’m 59 — television was the place to see music. Back in the late ’50s and into the ’60s, variety shows were the staple of TV; every channel had a variety show and great musicians either playing onstage or offstage. And they were all orchestras, big bands, lots of brass.”
The interest in big-band swing and Weinberg’s dedication to the sound on “Late Night” spawned invitations to colleges across the country to sit in and, in his word,s “play it quite well.”
The Max Weinberg Big Band has been on the road for several-week stretches since June of this year, playing everything from crime drama TV themes of the ’50s to, “Big Band Boss” — big-band versions of Bruce Springsteen songs. And despite Weinberg’s name atop the marquee, the shadow of his former boss, The Boss, is never far away. For Weinberg, performing as a member of the E Street Band has truly helped him prepare for this tour and this incarnation of his career.
“I’ve had the great advantage of, for 36 years, working underneath one of history’s great band leaders, Bruce Springsteen, who understands the full ramifications of the job and leads by example. I can tell you that, from behind the scenes, I learned how to work hard by working with Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “So I try to bring those same values, to let people find their level of excellence on their own and help them along when you need to. You want to keep it disciplined but relaxed. That could describe the E Street Band and that’s what I try to bring to it is a disciplined relaxation where everyone can feel like they have the opportunity to voice both their musical instincts and opinions.”
And while it may seem like the decades of the musical landscape between “Born to Run” or “Glory Days” and the “Mr. Lucky Theme Song” may be insurmountable, Weinberg notes it’s actually not that different.
“It’s exactly the same to tell you the truth. The drummer is there to provide an accommodating pulse to the rest of the musicians, and accompaniment — that’s the primary job. Anything else you do beyond that is gravy.
“So whether I play with my own band on television, or with Bruce’s band, the E Street Band, in a stadium or my own big band, the mandate is, first and foremost, be an accompanist.”
Still, the big-band swing style does allow room for Weinberg to show off the chops that earned him Best Drummer accolades from Playboy and Rolling Stone as well as the E Street Nation’s nickname “Mighty Max.”
“I think the new stuff we’ve done stands up there with the best of everything we’ve done. We’re very invigorated, we are an ongoing concern and I think people will be hearing a lot more from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.”
And while that last statement will send Springsteen fans around the world into anxious anticipation for the next note from The Boss, Weinberg notes he’s speaking with “no particular insight.”
“I believe we’ll be doing stuff sooner rather than later. As long as you’re feeling good and playing good — my health is fabulous, the best it’s ever been — there’s no reason you can’t do it. After all these years, I’ve been with Bruce 36 years, I never think about what we’re doing next because I have a lot of faith and belief in the truth of what we’re doing. So eventually, all the stars will align and we’ll be back there.
“The overriding feeling I have is that it’s a privilege to still be doing it. We have an incredible audience, the best audience out there, and we don’t take it lightly. We go out there and play our hearts out whenever we play.”
So for now, fans of Max Weinberg and the big beat should sit back and enjoy The Max Weinberg Big Band.
“I keep looking toward the future. I just want to keep playing the drums and I’m searching every night for that feeling of connection with both the audience and with that little kid drummer that still lives inside of me; when I play the drums, I’m there. Here I am, 59 years old and I’m still doing it. And when I’m playing the drums, I’ll be honest with you, I still feel like I’m 12 years old all over again.”
The Max Weinberg Big Band performs at The Ark in Ann Arbor at 8 p.m. Oct. 23. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased by phone by calling the Michigan Union Ticket Office at (734) 763-TKTS (8587), online through www.ticketmaster.com or at The Ark box office the day of the show.