A Tribute to The Band’s Masterpiece: 10 Stellar Covers of “The Weight”

by Peter Wendel
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RobbieRobertson1971

Robbie Robertson 1971 [photo: Wikipedia]

If there was an MVP of the great American songbook, “The Weight” would be on the short list. The Band’s 1968 classic is an essential part of our musical folklore – not only in its sublime original form (off the album, Music From Big Pink), but also in the flurry of reinterpretations it inspired from gospel, soul, pop and country artists.

The long parade of covers – winding its way from soul queen Aretha Franklin to the iconic gospel act The Staple Singers to country giant Waylon Jennings – has helped “The Weight” touch nearly every segment of the American population, lending new meaning to the term “crossover potential” and building a massive audience that rivals the reach of any other song in the history of rock music.

“The Weight” is right out of America’s Bible Belt – capturing the restless spirit of a nation through a cast of colorful characters like “Crazy Chester” and “young Anna Lee” and cameos from biblical heavyweights, like the “Devil,” “Moses” and “Luke” (as in, Saint Luke, the biblical author).

The lyric arc of the song follows a road-weary traveler through the holy city of Nazareth as he interacts with the townspeople on his search for a place to lay his head and rest.

I pulled in to Nazareth
Was feelin’ ’bout a half past dead
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head
Hey mister, can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed
He just grinned and shook my hand
“No” was all he said

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Levon Helm [photo: Wikipedia]

According to guitarist Robbie Robertson, who wrote “The Weight,” he pulled together the material for the song while in the South visiting Memphis and the surrounding area in western Tennessee, not far from where The Band’s drummer and lead vocalist, Levon Helm, was born in rural Arkansas. Here’s more from Roberston via Wikipedia:

To me … going there was like going to the source. Because I was at such a vulnerable age then, it made a really big impact on me. Just that I had the honor joining up with this group and then even going to this place, which was close to a religious experience – even being able to put my feet on the ground there, because I was from Canada, right? So it was like, ‘Woah, this is where this music grows in the ground, and [flows from] the Mississippi river. My goodness.’ It very much affected my songwriting and, because I knew Levon’s musicality so well, I wanted to write songs that I thought he could sing better than anybody in the world.

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HOW ‘THE WEIGHT’ BECAME GREAT

TheWeightsinglecoverObviously, The Band deserves the lion’s share of credit for the enduring success of “The Weight,” but without a mishmash of A-list covers, the song would never have resonated with such a huge and diverse segment of the American populace.

Case in point, “The Weight” didn’t shoot straight up the charts upon its release in 1968 on The Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink. The song stalled at #63 in the United States, not even breaking into the Top-40 – though it did get to #21 in the UK and #35 in Canada.

The popularity of “The Weight” didn’t truly take off until after the release of a handful of covers between 1968 and 1970 – reinterpretations by female artists Jackie DeShannon (pop), The Staple Singers (gospel), Aretha Franklin (soul) and Diana Ross (R&B). Dozens of other noteworthy covers would follow from bands including The Grateful Dead, Panic! At The Disco and moe.

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“The Weight” became truly great through a diverse string of reinterpretations that introduced the song to audiences far beyond The Band’s folk-rock base. It would become one of most popular and enduring rock songs in the history of the genre. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “The Weight” #41 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and Pitchfork Media voted it the 13th best song of the Sixties.

Catch a cannonball now to take me on down the line…

THE WEIGHT
The Band
Music From Big Pink (1968)

From Robbie Robertson’s opening guitar riff to the iconic characters featured in the lyrics to the layering and stacking of multiple voices, one on top of the other – the original version is a masterpiece. This is the recording that triggered an explosion of reinterpretations from across the musical spectrum.

THE WEIGHT
The Band
The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz was billed as The Band’s “farewell concert appearance.” The extravaganza, featuring a mind-blowing lineup of musical guests, was held on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The audio below is The Band and The Staple Singers performing “The Weight” just after the official concert had ended. The performance was filmed for the critically acclaimed concert film, The Last Waltz. Mavis Staples sings lead vocals on the second verse and Pops (Staples) sings the third verse.

10 HOT COVERS

There are far too many reinterpretations of “The Weight” to list them all here. We’ve done our level best to provide a representative slice of the best covers from across a diverse group of genres.

Jackie DeShannon (1968)
Genre: Pop

Jackie DeShannon’s pop version of “The Weight” reached #55 in America and #35 in Canada. It’s one of the early covers that is credited with increasing the reach and popularity of the song.

The Staple Singers (1968)
Genre: Gospel

The Staple Singers, a popular gospel act, introduced “The Weight” to an audience far beyond The Band’s base. The Staple Singers would go on to perform with The Band on the version of the song that appears on the album, The Last Waltz (1978).

Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations (1969)
Genre: R&B/Soul/Pop

This collaborative Motown cover, showcasing The Supremes and The Temptations, reached #46 on the Billboard Hot 100. Remember, The Band’s original version only made it to #63.

Aretha Franklin with Duane Allman (1970)
Genre: Soul

Aretha Franklin – with Duane Allman on lead guitar – released a soul arrangement of “The Weight” in 1970 on her album, This Girl’s In Love With You. Aretha’s cover ran way farther up the charts than The Band’s original, peaking at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 for soul/R&B tracks. The Band’s version topped out at #63.

Sammi Smith (1971)
Genre: Country

Sammi was one of the few women involved in the “outlaw country” movement of the 1970s. Early “outlaws” include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Sammi does them proud.

Bob Dylan & The Band (1974)
Genre: Folk-Rock

Technically speaking, this is a cover – and a damn good one. For his 1974 tour, Dylan reunited with his former backing group, The Band.

The Grateful Dead (1990)
Genre: Jamband/Americana

It’s fitting that The Grateful Dead covered The Band – one purveyor of Americana reinterpreting another. As a protector of the great American songbook, The Dead brought “The Weight” into the fold, adding The Band to their expansive list of artists they covered. This performance was recorded on March 28, 1990, at the Nassau Coliseum. It was the first time The Dead covered the song.

Waylon Jennings (2007)
Genre: Country

Country legend Waylon Jennings recorded this live cover in 2000, just two years before his death at the age of 64.

moe. (2008)
Genre: Rock/Jamband

A fixture on the jamband festival circuit, Buffalo-based moe. gets in on the action.

Panic! At The Disco (2008)
Genre: Pop/Rock

It’s a testament to the staying power of “The Weight” when you realize the members of this Las Vegas-based group weren’t even born until 10 years after The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz.

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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