For TV Band, Jet Lag is Part of the Job


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The drummer Max Weinberg, leads the eight-member house band on The Tonight Show With Conan OBrien.

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Izod Center in the New Jersey Meadowlands on May 21, there was one musician conspicuously absent: Max Weinberg, the groups drummer for more than three decades.

As Mr. Springsteen tore into his opening number, Badlands, Mr. Weinberg was on another stage 3,000 miles away, pounding his drum kit through a dress rehearsal of The Tonight Show With Conan OBrien, in advance of its debut last Monday on NBC. The following night Mr. Weinberg boarded a red eye for the East Coast so he could rejoin his E Street band mates, however temporarily, for the second show of that New Jersey stand, which fell on a rare night off from his new duties.

For Mr. Weinberg and the seven other East Coast musicians who have relocated to California along with Mr. OBrien including all the founding members of the Max Weinberg 7, the house band on Mr. OBriens Late Night for 16 years the turnover in hosts (and bands) on Tonight has proved to be both exhilarating and disruptive.

No one has had to make a more prominent transition than Mr. Weinberg, who was replaced that first night in New Jersey by his son, Jay, 18, who is also substituting for his father on at least the first seven dates that Mr. Springsteen is playing in Europe, on a leg of the tour that began last Saturday in the Netherlands. While Mr. OBrien and NBC had previously permitted Mr. Weinberg to take leaves of absence from Late Night for as many as six months to tour with Mr. Springsteen, the opening weeks of Tonight were ultimately deemed too important for him to miss.

Which is not to say that Mr. Weinberg, 58, is complaining.

I cant tell you what a thrill it is to be the bandleader on The Tonight Show, Mr. Weinberg said last Thursday night, speaking by phone from Universal Studios in Los Angeles following yet another dress rehearsal. I have this sort of dual-sided musical personality, and an ability to just go where the music takes me.

When I play with Bruce, I grow my hair long, he added. And as soon as I am back on TV, I cut it off.

For longtime viewers of Late Night, the presence of Mr. Weinberg along with other familiar faces like the trombone player Richie Rosenberg, better known as La Bamba, and Jimmy Vivino, the guitarist is like having the same band play ones bar mitzvah and wedding. Even the original Late Night theme has made the trip to Mr. OBriens new time zone and time slot.

Renamed Max Weinberg & the Tonight Show Band (the better to accommodate an eighth member, the percussionist James Wormworth), the ensemble ranges from rock to soul to Broadway to the blues. During Monday nights program, the band played something quasi-Middle-Eastern as Will Ferrell was carried onstage by attendants as if he were a pharaoh, and later accompanied him on the Jackson 5 hit Never Can Say Goodbye. (The joke was that Mr. OBriens first show might be his last.)

But the bands most profound influences (and deepest roots) are in and around the overheated, beer-splattered clubs of the Jersey shore: Mr. Rosenberg and Mark Pender, the trumpet player, are longtime members of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; Mr. Vivino and his older brother Jerry, the Tonight saxophonist, were, as children, part of a family dance team that played the Atlantic City Boardwalk; and Mr. Weinberg, who grew up in Newark and South Orange, still lives primarily on a farm in Monmouth County.

You pretty much have to be from New Jersey or Philly to be in the band, said Jimmy Vivino, the first musician Mr. Weinberg phoned in 1993, after a chance meeting with Mr. OBrien on a Manhattan street corner set in motion the chain of events that led to his getting the Late Night bandleaders gig.

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