By Robert Price New Jersey Herald
When The River Tour ended last February, Max Weinberg just wanted to sleep. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, of which Weinberg is the longtime drummer, had just finished a tour of 89 concerts (nearly four hours each) in 14 months in 15 countries. So it's understandable that all the E Streeters would want some down time.
But it didn't take Weinberg's manager, Mark Stein, long to come up with a new idea. And before he could get 40 winks, it seemed, Weinberg was back on the road with Max Weinberg's Jukebox.
Weinberg and members of The Weeklings, a power pop and Beatles tribute band, will perform the unique show at The Newton Theater Dec. 8.
"It's an audience participation experience where the audience picks the songs all night long," Weinberg said, over the phone from his South Orange home. "It's a party; it's not a concert."
The new small-venue touring concept -- quite different from the gigs Weinberg is used to with Springsteen or as a late-night TV personality and band leader -- has been well received so far with sold-out shows across the U.S. and Canada.
"It's a lot of fun. I hope we pack the place," said Weinberg, 66, a Newark native who's familiar with Newton and the surrounding area. When his children were small he used to take them to the Land of Make Believe in Hope, and his family ran a camp near the Delaware Water Gap back in the day.
"It's a lovely part of New Jersey," he said.
Max Weinberg's Jukebox involves two video screens that scroll a list of more than 200 mostly classic rock and roll songs. Audience members yell out their requests from the list -- and occasionally not from the list -- and Weinberg and his crack band play the songs so they sound as close to the originals as possible.
"There's a treasure trove of material that's been played for 50 or 60 years, and usually not played correctly," Weinberg said. "The common thread is all the musicians I play with have a deep and abiding respect for all the songs."
Weinberg's band members vary from gig to gig, depending on availability, but the core group -- The Weeklings -- is composed of Glen Burtnik, Bob Burger, John Merjave and Joe Bellia. Burtnik, a multi-instrumentalist, was in "Beatlemania" on Broadway and played with the band Styx. Burger, guitar and bass, like Burtnik, is an award-winning songwriter. Merjave, guitar, vocals, plays in the bands 27 West and Liverpool. And Bellia has played drums for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Keyboardist David Biglin also sits in sometimes.
"We capture the infectious fun contained in all these records," Weinberg said.
A typical setlist might end up including "Glad All Over" by the Dave Clark Five, "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "The Weight" by The Band, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by The Beatles, "Wipe Out" by The Surfaris, "Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young, "Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones, "American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "White Room" by Cream, "Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf and, of course, Springsteen tunes like "Thunder Road" and "Born in the USA."
The Jukebox isn't just music. Weinberg uses his comedic improvisation skills to tell stories behind the songs.
"It runs the gamut. It's extraordinarily esoteric," he said.
Weinberg, the driving rhythmic force propelling the E Street Band for 43 years, is also known to millions of fans for his 17-year stint as the bandleader and comedic foil to talk show host Conan O'Brien and is the only musician in history to make the leap from a starring role in one of the world's iconic rock groups to leading his eponymous band on NBC's "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show." And if that wasn't enough, Weinberg managed to do both gigs simultaneously from 1999 to 2009.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Weinberg beamed.
Throughout his 50-year professional career Weinberg has played with some of the biggest and most diverse names in music -- James Brown, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Ringo Starr, John Fogerty, Stevie Winwood, Sheryl Crow, even Isaac Hayes performing his legendary "Shaft" with a 30-piece orchestra on the "Late Night" broadcast.
He got his start playing drums in the pit band for the Broadway show "Godspell," while attending Seton Hall University. He met Springsteen in the summer of 1974 when he answered a Village Voice ad for a drummer.
"I think I was the 55th drummer out of 60-some," Weinberg recalled. "I made a minimalist statement -- I didn't bring the entire drum set. By that time I was pretty versatile. I think that's what Bruce liked.
"I'm a meat-and-potatoes drummer. The ad said ‘no Ginger Bakers' so it was obvious he didn't want flamboyant. He was looking for an accompanist and that's what I was good at."
Weinberg said that he could tell -- even in 1974 before The Boss had struck it big -- that Springsteen was something special. "At that point I knew his name but I didn't know any of his music. I could tell he was the real deal. I was 23 and I'd never seen that kind of cohesion in a band.
"For me it always has been the realization of everything I ever fantasized about as a kid growing up in New Jersey. It's the thrill of a lifetime to be playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band."
In 2009 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed the halftime show at Super Bowl 43 to the largest audience ever recorded for that event -- more than 100 million people. Weinberg also has the distinction of being the drummer on the two biggest selling rock albums in history -- Springsteen's "Born In The USA" and Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell."
If you go ...
What: Max Weinberg's Jukebox
When: Friday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Newton Theatre, 234 Spring St., Newton
Admission: $44-$59 (VIP $174)
Tickets, information: 973-940-NEWT, www.thenewtontheatre.com
Other region shows
Dec. 3 -- Daryl's House, Pawling, N.Y.
Jan. 13 -- Landmark Theater, Port Washington, N.Y.
Jan. 19 -- Tarrytown Music Hall, Tarrytown, N.Y.