Growing up wanting to be a professional musician, my parents always encouraged my guitar playing, but they made sure I was realistic about what kind of career I could have. Really, in my 16-year-old head, I had no idea what mom and dad were talking about. And though I understand better now how my parents were only trying to prepare me, I still wouldn’t mind having a career like that of Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame drummer (and one of my music heroes) Max Weinberg.
The New Jersey-born Weinberg has held two separate musical dream jobs throughout his long career. Since 1974, Weinberg has served as the drummer for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, becoming a mainstay of the group and giving Springsteen’s rhythm section its iconic power and punch. In addition to his meteoric rock career, Weinberg is also known to millions of fans around the globe as the bandleader and founder of the Max Weinberg 7, a.k.a. Conan O’Brien’s band on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show from 1993 to 2010.
As if Weinberg weren’t busy enough—he completed the massive The River Tour with Springsteen and the E Street Band back in 2017—he’s now touring with a truly interactive concert experience: Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, which is coming to Proctors this Friday, January 11. Capital Region fans won’t just get to see him and his “Jukebox band” play live—they’ll also get to create the playlist from a menu of more than 200 songs. We’re talking all the songs that were formative in Weinberg’s life and career: everything from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to his work with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Weinberg will also give audiences a peek behind the curtain of his career (both in rock and late night) by telling stories and reminiscing about certain songs. Luckily, saratoga living got to talk with Weinberg and get its own sneak peek into his concert at Proctors.
Tell me a little about your concert, Max Weinberg’s Jukebox at Proctors this Friday.
I put the Jukebox band together in April of 2017. We’ve done a little over a hundred shows since then. We call it the “No Overhead Tour,” because all the equipment is provided by the venues, such as Proctors. It’s not a concert; it’s a party. It’s all audience requests, essentially the songs that I grew up with, the songs that created the soundtrack to the ’60s and ’70s.
You’ve played at Proctors before, but you’ve also played at SPAC, right?
Yeah, we played SPAC one time on the Born in the U.S.A. Tour in the summer of 1984. And my son’s a well-known drummer [Jay Weinberg] who took my place when I did The Tonight Show with Conan, and he made his US debut there when he played with the E Street Band in 2009.
Did you get some down time to enjoy Saratoga?
Oh yeah. I actually brought my 15-piece jazz band to Saratoga to the Universal Preservation Hall in 2010. It’s a great music city.
You started with the E Street Band at just 23 years old. What’s it like looking back now after such a successful and diverse career?
Well, I was kind of an unusual kid. I started playing professionally when I was seven years old with a local weddings and bar mitzvahs guy. I was a novelty act as a child. So by the time I met Bruce and the E Street Band, I’d been playing professionally for 16 years. So, yes, while I was 23 years old, I’d been playing every kind of job you could imagine and had a lot of experience. And at the time when I met Bruce and the band, I was actually playing in the Broadway show Godspell, which was quite popular in the 1970s.
Tell me how that first audition went.
Playing with Bruce the first time was obviously, even just on a musical level, a life-changing experience. My first audition was with Bruce, Clarence Clemons [saxophone], Garry Tallent [bass] and Danny Federici [organ/piano]. It wasn’t just what Bruce was doing, which was formidable, but it was how the three of them were relating to him [musically] that really stood out. Even though I’d been playing a lot, it was really quite unique to my experience. I think I was about the 56th or 57th drummer that auditioned during the summer of 1974, and the rest is what it is. [Laughs] I took a huge pay cut at the time [going from Broadway to rock], but it was the best investment I ever made.
I heard that you got the audition for Late Night with Conan O’Brien from a chance encounter with Conan. Is that true?
I’d read that David Letterman was leaving NBC to go to CBS. Paul Shaffer is a friend of mine—[we] played in Godspell together back in the ’70s—and he gave me a couple of leads. This was four years after Bruce broke up the E Street Band, and I wanted to do late-night as a way to get back into music. So my wife and I had been at a party in New York City in May of 1993. We left early and went into the Carnegie Deli for dinner. Afterwards, we’re walking down 7th Avenue and standing on the corner of 7th Avenue and 54th Street was Conan O’Brien.
And you just approached him?
It was my wife, Becky, who encouraged me to go over and say hello because, hey, you never know. What are the chances of running into the guy in New York City, waiting for a light to turn, and he’s just given a network TV show? So [we] walked over and introduced ourselves. Conan wasn’t a particular fan of the E Street Band, but it put us in contact. I congratulated him [on the show] and asked what he was doing for music. He said, “We’ve got some ideas.” And then he said, “Do you have any ideas?” So I went into my pitch for the band. And the great thing about Conan O’Brien, that was consistent his entire career, is that he doesn’t care where a good idea comes from. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. And he’s always eliciting the best from the people that work for him.
What was it like when you found out that you were going to be the show’s bandleader?
They let me sit for about a week, and then a producer from the show called me and said, “Can you go to LA?” I said yeah. A car picked me up in two hours and took me to the airport. I flew out to meet Lorne Michaels, who was producing Wayne’s World 2, and, basically, he just wanted to meet me. I was in LA for just an hour, got back on the plane, and the next day went to the studio and started putting the show together. I had an incredible group of musicians with me—the best, in my view. The last decade of my tenure there, I led the band on that show and played with the E Street Band. So for me, it was an embarrassment of riches, and certainly the top of my own personal bell curve.