When Max Weinberg was six years old, he made a promise to himself.
The Max Weinberg Big Band
Saturday at 8 p.m.
Tickets from $30
“My self-imposed mandate as a young drummer was: Play as much as possible, preferably every day.”
Fifty-three years later, Weinberg continues to uphold his promise. He is considered one of rock‘n’roll’s greatest drummers as the anchor of Bruce Springsteen’s legendary E Street Band and has brought his music into millions of homes during his 17 years with the house band for Conan O’Brien’s two late-night TV shows.
“A day with drumming, for me, is a day well spent,” he explained in an interview with the Daily.
Weinberg’s penchant for performance and desire to constantly play his instrument motivated him to start a new project as the leader of a big band. Billed as The Max Weinberg Big Band, the 15-piece orchestra is touring the country and will make a stop in Ann Arbor tomorrow night.
“We’re (performing) what I consider my favorite songs from the top shelf of my record collection,” he explained. “It’s kind of a musical odyssey of my life, of what influenced me, whether it was the big band sound or rock‘n’roll or TV themes.”
The setlist contains no original material, but past concerts have included instrumental renditions of tunes by Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich and even an occasional Springsteen song.
No plans have been made to record the Big Band, but it’s not out of the question.
“My priority and my goal is to play live as much as I can,” he said.
The nature of these performances, however, are drastically different from Weinberg’s normal routine with the E Street Band. His role as bandleader, the style of music and the smaller venues all contribute to an entirely new experience.
“When you’re leading your own band, you try to (keep the band) motivated. … You try to give everybody their spotlight,” he said. “When I play with Bruce, I have to be completely in service of what he’s doing and go in whatever direction he’s going to go into.”
Certainly the contrasting styles of rock versus swing music dictate another notable deviation from his past job description to his current one.
“Drumming for a rock band, you’re going for more impact,” he explained. “The music I’m playing (now), which is largely based in swing, technically speaking, is a dotted eighth, sixteenth note, triplet feel.”
Regardless of style, however, there is an “esoteric pulse” and balance the drummer must constantly maintain.
“You know it when it’s happening, and you certainly know it and you feel it when it’s not,” he said of this balance which is the drummer’s essential duty.
Perhaps the concert tour’s most glaring change from E Street shows is the jump from stadiums packed full screaming fans to small clubs with the audience taking a more casual approach to listening.
For Weinberg, this discrepancy is hardly worth noting.
“The size of the venue is inconsequential,” he said. “To me, it’s about the people and getting them to the point where they’re thoroughly entertained. For example, we played a place last night in Indianapolis — The Jazz Kitchen — which seated about 125 people at tables. And it was just as exciting as playing in an arena.”
This contentment with his circumstances also comes through in Weinberg’s outlook on his past positions as a sidekick rather than as a frontman.
Living in the shadow of two cultural giants for an entire career would be discouraging to some. But Weinberg considers his unshakeable connection to O’Brien and Springsteen an undeniable privilege.
“It’s the great honor of my life to be attached to those two names,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to have a Bruce Springsteen or Conan O’Brien in their life?”
And so it seems that Weinberg’s easygoing personality mixed with an undying passion for music will keep him feeling youthful even in the latter years of his life.
“When I drum, it keeps me very closely in touch with that little kid drummer that still lives inside of me, where everything in the world — as complicated as the world is — for that amount of time I’m drumming — whether it’s an hour and a half with my band or for four hours with the E Street Band — everything is very simple,” he said. “I have a job to do. I have a desire to do it well, and when I play the drums I feel like I’m contributing something very useful to peoples’ lives.”