The Weight is one of the most instantly recognizable songs in all of rock and folk music. Every part of it is distinctive–the acoustic guitar intro, the opening “I pulled into Nazareth” lyric, the descending chord pattern on the chorus, the piano fills, the vocal harmony on “And … and … and … you put the load right on me”–and those fantastic individual parts come together to form a whole that’s somehow eclipses their individual awesomeness.
The song was recorded in 1968 by The Band, who of course provided the sonic backdrop for Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde, before recording their own classic album, Music From Big Pink. Perhaps the best indication of how well the song has aged over the past 45 years is how often it is covered by other artists in concert. Type “The Weight” into the search bar on YouTube and you’ll get more than five million results to navigate. For fun, and because, as everyone knows, I love lists, I thought I’d dig around for a while and pick my five favorites.
5. The Lumineers
I’m sure some of you are asking, The Lumineers? Really? Allow me to explain. There are literally hundreds of better versions of The Weight on YouTube, but I chose this one for a specific reason: They invite a girl from the audience up on the stage to sing with them, and before the band starts playing, you hear frontman Wesley Schultz ask her if she knows the words. She says yes, and they begin. He sings the first verse and turns it over her to sing the second–and she starts singing the first verse again. This is hilarious, because The Weight is actually a long song, five verses, with a lot of lyrics, but most people only know the first verse and the chorus. Hell, I’m pretty sure Robbie Robertson doesn’t remember all five verses, and he wrote the song. Everyone loves to play this tune, but take it from someone who goes to a lot of jams: It’s a secret jam-buster.
4. Bruce Springsteen
This clip is taken from a Springsteen concert at the Prudential Center in New Jersey in May 2012. People don’t pay hundreds of dollars to see the Boss play covers–they want to hear Born to Run and Thunder Road, especially in New Jersey. But the crowd goes nuts when they realize what Bruce is playing, and it seems like every single member of that audience joins in for the chorus. There’s nothing quite like hearing twenty thousand people all singing the same song together.
3. Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, and some other people I don’t recognize.
Just look at those names! This was the closing number from the Warren Hellman Tribute show at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in February 2012. For the uninitiated, Hellman was the billionaire who founded and funded San Francisco’s amazing annual free music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. He passed away after the 2011 festival, and these artists came together for a one day memorial, sort of a mini-Hardy Strictly. You don’t get a lot of chances to see that many amazing musicians on one stage at once, and while I went to the Hellman Tribute, I left the show before this finale. I’ve hated myself for it ever since.
2. Wilco, Nick Lowe, and Mavis Staples
This video was taken backstage before a show at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. The intimate access to the musicians is really cool, but by far the best part of this video is listening to Mavis Staples, who performed The Weight with The Band for The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band’s 1976 farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Mavis Staples is fucking awesome.
1. The Band, with the Staple Sisters
Could anything be number one besides the clip from The Last Waltz? You just can’t beat the original–not when it’s performed by one of the greatest bands in rock history and filmed by one of the greatest directors who ever lived. And it bears repeating: Mavis Staples is fucking awesome.