Max Weinberg By Request
Hall of Fame Drummer's New Project Lets the Audience Call the Shots

By Lee Valentine Smith

When he plays with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, drummer Max Weinberg is always on alert for deviations from the setlist. Known as "audibles," the selections can change the course of the show in an instant, keeping the band and the audience on their toes.

After an exhaustive world tour in celebration of The River, the E Street Band is now scattered across the country with their own projects as Springsteen readies his one-man show for a Broadway run.

In addition to leading a society orchestra and a 23-piece swing ensemble, Weinberg is touring the country with his Jukebox, a small powerpop combo and a long list of several hundred song selections. The list is projected on a screen and the audience calls the tunes.

Weinberg, who also served as Conan O'Brien's Late Night bandleader/comedy foil for 17 years, spoke about the new band with INsite during a lengthy late-night conversation.

When did the Jukebox concept begin?

At the end of February of this year, we ended The River tour in New Zealand. Once you're finally done with a tour like that you really just collapse. I came home and basically slept, ate ice cream and watched reruns of Law and Order. I got in quite a groove. One night Mark Stein, my best friend and manager, called and said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Eating Haagen-Dazs and watching television.' He said, 'We've gotta get you back on the road.' He had this idea and I was very intrigued. I said, 'What you're describing sounds like a human jukebox.'

The birth of a cool idea.

Yeah, you know sometimes you'll go see a band and maybe they don't play your favorite song. Well we satisfy that urge, from a list of about 400 songs. It's just about anything you might want to hear. It's two hours of literally just calling it out. I don't know if anyone has quite done it this way before. As a journeyman musician, my toolbox is just my drumset. I grew up listening to drummers like Cozy Cole or Sandy Nelson or DJ Fontanta from Elvis' band. So the songs we are doing are some of the songs that inspired me to become a drummer when I was a kid. And some that made me a better drummer as I was growing up. So it covers a lot, whether you know me from Bruce's band or from television.

Tell us about the live show.

It's a party, total audience participation. I go out in the audience and sometimes I'll interview people about the songs they want to hear and I ask them why they want to hear it. It's occurred to me that in this band I'm like Dave Clark the drummer and Dick Clark the TV host.

It takes a special kind of band to be that spontaneous.

I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to playing it just like the record. People know these songs and they expect to hear them the way they remember them. We're talking about songs that are 40 or 50 years old or even older so we do our best to recreate them. These guys are in a power pop band called the Weeklings and they can play just about anything.

Do the requests ever stump you?

One of our first shows was at City Winery in New York. Somebody called out for "I Can See For Miles" by The Who. I'd never played it and The Who didn't even play it that often but I've heard it a million times. I've got the kind of musical memory that if I've heard a song a couple of times, I can play it. I remember the fills, I remember the feel. It's a crazy memory thing. The guys I'm playing with know every song. They're like me in learning the parts, like knowing that little thing George Harrison did or some Keith Richards lick, for example. We'll do Beach Boys material and the harmonies have to be spot on. So we played "I Can See For Miles" and it brought the house down! I was channeling Keith Moon.

Obviously playing with Bruce all these years has offered plenty of opportunities for varied styles of drumming.

Yeah, with Bruce he'll suggest something and it often reminds me of the great drummers like Ringo or Charlie Watts or Hal Blaine. I've kinda realized that I'm an amalgam of all the records I listened to as a kid and then as an adult trying to get better. I don't really write songs, but I sure love playing things like "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" by Manfred Mann. Or - here's one you don't hear about too much, from July of 1964, you've gotta be my age to even remember this song - it's called "A Summer Song" by Chad and Jeremy.

Oh yeah, it was produced by Shel Talmy, who also worked with The Who. You certainly never hear that one being covered.

It was a top ten hit, but it's pretty obscure now. When we play it, I preface it by telling a story from my own life. In the summer of '64, I had a girlfriend and by the end of the eight weeks, the bloom was off of the rose, I guess. I didn't quite know what to say to her. I was a 13-year old kid, so I quoted the lyrics from the song. 'They say all good things must end someday / Autumn leaves must fall.' It's always been one of my favorite songs and a good memory for me.

That's the power of music, it instantly transforms the listener.

Exactly. Every one of these songs seems to inspire that and the show is built for bars and clubs. Places where adult beverages are served. Sometimes I'll say, 'Are there any drummers in the house?' Hands will go up and I'll pick somebody to come up and play a song. It's just a fun night.

This show sounds like a two-hour version of the part of Bruce's show where he picks a request from fan-made signs. That's always my favorite part of the evening. How did that come about?

It actually happened organically. It stated small and grew. Now it's popular and people are getting very creative with those signs. And every one that makes it to the stage is saved. There's some great stuff and I hope someone will make a book or something out of them. We'll rehearse that request right on the stage. I think that's something people really like about us, the willingness to be spontaneous and to challenge ourselves. So many shows these days are very planned out, but that's not how we usually operate. I love Broadway shows, but they're set pieces. When you can start and stop on a dime, and instantly change directions, it brings a whole new level of band - and audience - participation.

You're playing much smaller venues with this tour. Do you enjoy the bar stages?

I do and I think the audiences enjoy seeing us play up close. It makes for an even greater immediacy to the performances.

In your case, people know your musical history and they also have a direct connection to you via the familiarity of television.

Yeah, 17 years with Conan. Both in New York and L.A. Someone figured out that I was gone for about 6 of those years on tour with Bruce. But NBC and GE, who owned NBC at the time, were very much in favor of the touring. It was a great way to meet a lot of the company's clients all over the place.

Conan's Late Night preceded Jimmy Fallon with well-thought out bits that would have gone viral in today's world.

You know a lot of that early stuff shows up on You Tube. Sometimes I'll see a little of it. I still think Conan is one of the funniest, smartest guys. There was no doubt, even from the beginning, that he was going to rise. And he's doing such great stuff on TBS now.

That show thrust you into the spotlight with music of course, but you did some pretty edgy comedy bits on there.

Yeah, particularly for the time. I did some stuff on there that I wouldn't have wanted my children to have seen at the time. But I just embraced it because I knew how hard all the writers were working. The writers are really the unseen heroes of late night. A lot of them - including Louis CK - have gone on to great success on their own. I was like one of the oldest people there. I'd already been through a whole career with the E Street Band. They'd give the stuff to me and I'm not a comedian or an actor but I had an ability to give them want they wanted. When my kids were in high school, sometimes some of the other kids would say, 'Did you see what your father did last night?'

Max Weinberg's Jukebox plays October 24 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta

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