Some magic was bound to surround this, as Jimmy Vivino reunited with long-time former collaborators for the first time in years. But doing so in Levon Helm’s old-barn studio, where Vivino had made so many memories, only heightened the date’s sense of emotional reminiscence. The results on 13 Live, due May 7, 2013 from Blind Pig, play out like the very best of reunions — with no small amount of joy, but also some memorable twinges of sadness.
The Black Italians — a fiery group including Catherine Russell, Felix Cabrera, Danny Louis, Mike Merritt and James Wormworth that just makes a beautiful racket here — first gathered more than 20 years ago for a residency at New York’s Downtown Bar. Since, Vivino has gone on to a memorable stint with Al Kooper, become a stalwart member of Conan O’Brien’s studio band, and developed a lasting musical bond at a series of appearances with the late Helm, drummer and key voice with the Band.
Yet something, some spark, some lasting connection, clearly remained despite the Black Italians’ lengthy time apart. 13 Live, in fact, picks up like a conversation once interrupted amongst old friends — right where it left off. “Fat Man,” the opener, rumbles to life with a shambolic beauty and 13 Lives begins chugging along with a soulful determination.
An early take on Johnny Winters’ “Fast Life Rider,” powered by a scorching guitar turn by Vivino, unfolds like a boisterous, happy-go-lucky late-night blues jam, while the original “Heaven in a Pontiac” scuffs things up with a rockabilly attitude. “Miss Mona” has a conversational, Little Feat vibe that perfectly suits this group’s easy sense of camaraderie. In keeping with the sessions’ locale outside of Woodstock, N.Y., Vivino and Co. make passes at a pair of Bob Dylan tracks — the stamping, propulsive “From a Buick 6″ and the loose, rocking “Maggie’s Farm.”
Though Vivino handles many of the vocals, Russell — a versatile performer, emotive and then confidential — simply sets “Soulful Dress” aflame, then reaches the very bottom of a brown bottle on the devastating “Fool’s Gold.” Later, she gives James Brown a run for his money on “What Do I Have to Do (to Prove My Love to You),” even as Cabrera and then Louis add locomotive turns on the harp and trombone, respectively.
Everything seems to be leading, both literally and figuratively, toward the album’s final two tracks, one a tribute to Helm and the other a signature track from the Band. Vivino’s “Song for Levon” opens with a line that brings it all home: “Something just came over me,” Vivino sings, sounding at times like the always deeply expressive Richard Manuel. The Rick Danko vehicle “The Shape I’m In” is then given an appropriately raucous reading, complete with a series of Garth Hudson-esque keyboard flourishes.
13 Live comes to a heartfelt conclusion, with a few smiles and a few tears. Just as it should be.
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