“The Weight” was written and recorded by The Band in 1968. It served as a modest debut hit, peaking at #63 on the US charts, but saw incremental success when covered by other artists. Jackie DeShannon took it to #55 that same year, Diana Ross & The Supremes collaborated with The Temptations to hit #46 with the song the next year, and Aretha Franklin leveled the field with a #19 cover in 1969. (At the time, covers worked well as fast-lane commercial vehicles. Herman’s Hermits even charted a #3 hit with their version of The Kinks’ “Dandy” before the Kinks had released it themselves.)
While it was only a minor hit in its time, “The Weight” has recently enjoyed a renaissance, and it now stands as one of the most beloved and remembered tunes of the late ’60s pop era. It continues to proliferate in commercials, movie soundtracks, and in presumed perpetuity on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time lists. A recent spate of renditions by big names in modern music can be added to that list, including those by Hanson, O.A.R., Travis, the Black Crowes, and of course, Weezer, who released theirs as a bonus track on the UK edition of 2008’s The Red Album.
Weezer’s apparent reasons for doing a cover of this song are two-fold. As Brian Bell explained in a recent interview, one of the three locations Weezer recorded their third self-titled album was the very same where The Band recorded the original (forty years prior), and it seemed like an obvious thing to do. Moreover, the original is a very vocally arranged song, with plenty of harmonies and alternating lead vocals between drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko, and Weezer’s version comes from a period during which Rivers Cuomo was not only allowing his bandmates to write and sing lead occasionally, but, for the first time, also putting those songs on an album. It’s not uncommon for a band to cover a song whose merits they are attempting to emulate (as evidenced by Weezer’s two secret shows in the late ’90s under the Goat Punishment moniker, tributes to Nirvana and Oasis), and considering that “The Weight” truly is a classic, it seemed like a tasteful choice for this newly (if briefly) reconfigured band.
Although most of the covers from the Red era were great ideas pitifully botched (for example, the previously discussed “Life’s What You Make It”), “The Weight” turned out pretty nice — certainly the best of the lot. Perhaps that’s in large part because it’s the only one that was clearly worked on as a band and in a professional studio (does Scott or Pat laying down some tracks in a home studio for a quick-fix b-side really qualify as “Weezer?”), but in any case, it’s a crisp, faithful take on the original. Scott Shriner shines brightest with the greatest vocal performance of his career, providing the loose-lipped southern drawl the song all but begs. Bell channels his Tennessee roots in his backing vocals, and Cuomo’s penultimate verse — the only time somebody takes baton from Shriner — comes as a breathy and well-placed change of pace. The only real artistic license the band takes is to add some (exceedingly) predictable guitar crunch on the chorus, but it works well enough. A solid take on a great song.