Photo: courtesy of Max Weinberg

Max Weinberg’s Jukebox Plays the Hits at the Hamilton

If you happened to be walking around 14th and F Street Northwest this past Saturday night, you may have thought there was an earthquake or a storm somehow brewing underground. Rather than a natural disaster, what you heard was Max Weinberg’s stadium-sized drum storm shake the Hamilton Live to the rafters. The Mighty Max has spent the better part of the past 45 years touring the globe as the ticking heart and time keeper for Bruce Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band. He cannot so readily abandon such a huge sound – hearing him rumble into a leaden version of Cream’s “White Room” was like hearing a jet engine up close – but without the arena rock spectacle, Weinberg enjoys free reign to pick up some of his older musical machinations.

His Jukebox, which played the Hamilton on July 13, might appear at first glance to be a cover band focusing on 60s and 70s rock classics, but there’s a deeper tradition at work. Weinberg and other members – Glen Burtnik, Bob Burger and John Merjave – all emerged from the bar band scene of New Jersey. In this school of thought, the musicians do not seek to replicate the music and personalities of others, as tribute outfits like Rain and Zoso do for the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, respectively, but neither do they attempt to play rock star, using someone else’s songs as a vehicle for flashy, boorish showmanship.

They walk a fine line at the border of homage, one between interpretation and recitation. Take David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” performed with gusto by the group: guitarist John Merjave got the strings down to a T, walking that razor-thin wire between glam sparkle and garage brash that makes the sound so irresistible. The quartet approached numbers like Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (featuring Max’s wife Rebecca belting the harmonica part) or Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding,”  with similar respect, bringing the sound of the original recordings to life like they were on your Spotify playlist; but played by a live band.

What Weinberg’s jukebox does could be accused as being a simple nostalgia act; but all the band members came up in an era where your livelihood as a musician depended on oh well you could play someone else’s record. Springsteen noted in his autobiography Born To Run that a major conflict in one of his earliest bands was over the fact that their drummer couldn’t play “Wipe Out,” which was a requirement to be taken seriously in the Jersey scene of the 60s. Of course the trick then and now is to also add just enough of your own spin where you can, to capture the spirit of the radio hits but with a twist. Bob Burger treated Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” like taffy, stretching and collapsing his phrasing as needed, but howled the final “I Walk The Line” like a lonesome train-whistle. The Dave Clark 5’s “Glad All Over,” already a choice vehicle for drummers, got an extra oomph of percussive thrust from Weinberg’s titanic hits.

Weinberg’s Jukebox also added a couple tweaks to some of The Boss’s biggest hits: “She’s The One” and “Dancing In the Dark,” driven here by a dual-guitar rather than the traditional keyboard parts, slide into something of a surf rock shimmy, as if they were road tested over countless sock hops and greaser halls up and down the Jersey shore. It may not be a hard connection to make on paper, but Weinberg and his band went deep into the roots of these songs – ones that the drummer himself as played for decades – to bring those buried elements to the surface. It was a small revelation.

So was hearing the Jukebox play more straight covers of Springsteen signatures like “Thunder Road.” If you were too caught up in the rush of hearing 23 songs played in two hours, you might have had an epiphany moment, revealing that when Weinberg leans fully into some of those classic drum fills: he’s the guy that wrote them! You’re not hearing them from 200 miles away in an arena, you’re standing feet from the source. For the Springsteen faithful, the moment can border on biblical; for the more casual fan, you at least remember that one of the greatest rock n’ roll drummers in the world is playing mere inches from you. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

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