“Time disappears when musicians find a common groove.”
Steve Weisberg said that in the bio on his website. Go ahead, click the link…admit you never heard of the guy before. I’ll admit to it. A few months ago, a friend in Virginia told me about him and the band he performs in- a John Denver tribute band lead by Denver look a like, Ted Vigil. The band is playing Sellersville Theatre on March 3rd, but tickets are no longer available. My friend told me how interesting Steve was to talk to when she met the band at the Birchmere in Virginia and that I should interview him. Unfortunately, the Sellersville show sold out so quickly that I can’t even encourage anyone reading this right now to go check out the show. I mean, you could call the theatre and beg, but I doubt it will work. So for now, enjoy the Q&A and keep the guy in mind for the next time he tours the area. This dude has a pretty great history in music and even if you aren’t a fan of folk or country, Steve is a kick-ass guitarist and someone worth checking out. Did I mention he used to play lead guitar for the REAL John Denver, too? Steve was lovely enough to talk to me about John Denver, touring and recording in the 70s, jamming with Steve Martin, and advice on starting a tribute band.
BH: How did you meet John Denver and did you feel that your musical style and his would mesh well?
SW: I actually moved from Austin to Aspen in 1972, to be discovered by John. I was under the impression he didn’t have a lead guitarist. That was not the case, but the misinformation served me well. When we played together, it meshed beautifully and very naturally; I never rehearsed any of his songs before we sat down to play at my interviews. I’d listened and listened, but never played them until we sat down in my living room. I knew it would be a great musical match. He hired me because he felt the same. Our two styles dovetailed very beautifully. Both of our styles are very simple and melody-driven.
BH: What was the recording process like back in the 70’s?
SW: That depended entirely on the choice of the artist, his producer, and their budget. With John, we flew through the albums, replete with mistakes that nobody held against us, or possibly never heard. On about a third of the songs on the records that are now historically his biggest, the band had only been shown the song a few minutes before what was to be ‘the take’. Later, on the road, we’d hone those songs. It was really pretty funny how it worked, and that it actually did work. It’s also worth mentioning that with all his power and clarity of purpose, he never once told me what to play. He just let me do what I felt would work at that moment.
BH: Ted Vigil looks/sounds a hell of a lot like John Denver. Aside from that, how are they alike?
SW: Looks aside, they are two different personalities. It’s funny, people compare Ted’s voice to John’s, but I don’t hear it at all. But I’ve noticed the same audience response with all the tribute artists I’ve accompanied. As far as Ted’s similarities to John, aside from the strong facial resemblance….. I see very few. Ted’s as laid back as the day is long. John was the most driven human being I have ever known. Like a fine racing machine with soul. John was really a one-of-a-kind.
BH: Now that you are touring with Vigil, do you sometimes forget who you are actually on stage with?
SW: No, never, although sometimes I do disappear into the song, into the music. Music’s always been my magic carpet. It’s that way for every one I’ve ever met in the industry.
BH: What did you do after you left the Denver’s band?
SW: I stayed in Aspen for a few years, playing ‘under the radar’, then moved back to my native Texas.
BH: How did you end up in a John Denver tribute band?
SW: The phone rang sometime after John’s death, and I was asked how much it would take to fly me to Aspen to play guitar. I was suddenly back in the music business; this time as ‘The Real McCoy Guitarist’, being hired by various tribute artists.
BH: What was it like being on the Johnny Carson show?
SW: The studio was small; tiny compared to the venues we’d been playing. It was a little underwhelming, as I had no sense of being watched by millions of TV viewers. I was just playing guitar. Like I always did, but with a little more care that my shirt was ironed.
BH: What was your favorite venue to play?
SW: Red Rocks, outside of Denver. Last time I played there, Sting had played the week before and pronounced it the best venue in the country. That had always been my feeling. I’ll get to play there this summer for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. I’m a lucky dog.
BH: There are so many tribute bands, what’s your advice to someone wanting to start one?
SW: Hmmm. I’ve always looked at music in general; not specifically through the eyes of tribute bands, which are a relatively new species. I suppose I’d say there are two things that have to exist: you have to like what you’re playing, and you have to remember why the original artist got big enough that you’re paying tribute (you have to try to capture the essence of what made all those people come out to see the original artist). For some bands, it’s all music. For John, there’s an essential honesty and accessibility that I think need to accompany the songs. John was a self-professed ‘populist artist’, so we have to go onstage just being…..regular people. Leave the attitude to the KISS tribute bands.
BH: Steve Martin used to sit in and play banjo with you? What was he like?
SW: He was very quiet offstage, until that inner madman came unleashed. When he sat in, he literally never spoke into the mike. Not a syllable. He just wanted to play banjo.. And he was (and is) a killer banjo player. One night John had a handful of guys up to the house. We started playing pool on John’s mint condition 1938 Brunswick table. Steve was losing, until he got tired of that; so he started delivering very fast jokes on the other players’ backstrokes…. We couldn’t shoot. We were crying with laughter; afraid of ripping the felt!
BH: Why didn’t he ever join Denver’s band?
SW: We never asked him to join. Actually, it was very clear that he was destined to be a superstar among comedians. Lately, he’s got a band that goes on tour playing to packed houses. He made a lot of money being funny, and in movies. I think he owns the other musicians. I’m annoyed he never tried to buy me.
BH: Have you ever played the Philadelphia area before? When/Where?
SW: Oh yeah, we played The Spectrum several times. Back in the 70’s. I remember those particular shows. As much as a musician can remember things from the 70’s.
“The most satisfying aspect of being with John was him recording some of my songs. All these years later, that’s the high mark of my career. John Denver chose to record some Steve Weisberg songs.”