Jimmy Vivino on ’13 Live,’ Al Kooper and the Band’s indelible legacy: Something Else! Interview

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Jimmy Vivino’s connection with the Band runs deep, and it continues right through to his upcoming release 13 Live, which was recorded at Levon Helm’s rustic concert space.

Vivino made a series of appearances with Helm over his last years, a dream come true for a musician whose life was in many ways shaped by their songs. Since the three-time Grammy winner’s passing last year, Vivino has also appeared with the Band’s Garth Hudson, in a tribute to the group’s fallen singers.

Of course, there’s more to the story with Vivino, a long-time member and now band leader for Conan O’Brien’s late-night shows. He’s toured with Johnnie Johnson, a key and underrated collaborator in the Chuck Berry legacy, and has worked for years with rock legend Al Kooper — apprenticeships that inform the deep grooves found everywhere on 13 Live, arriving May 7, 2013 from Blind Pig. Vivino also indulges a tandem passion for the Beatles with his work in the Fab Faux tribute band.

But as 13 Live draws to a close with both a joyous cover at classic from the Band and then Vivino’s own heart-rending tribute to Helm, it’s clear how much they have meant — and still mean — to this talented multi-instrumentalist …

NICK DERISO: You returned to Levon Helm’s facility, site of so many terrific shows, for 13 Live. Is that what prompted you to include a take on the Band’s “The Shape I’m In”?
JIMMY VIVINO: I put it last, as a footnote — after the song that I wrote for Levon. I’m always excited about playing that music. It’s very important music. There’s something about that barn, and the notes that have gone up there. It’s like the Ryman, you know? When the notes go up there, you’re mixing with Hank Williams. In the barn, you’re mixing with Richard Manuel, Steve Earle. Everybody that goes in there says the same thing: There’s something about the wood. There’s an organic thing about that place. It’s just a beautiful thing. We did it there because of that connection. In a way, we’re still in mourning. Every time we get together, it’s like a family reunion with the audience and the musicians — whatever configuration plays up there, out of Levon’s troops. We’ve got our own jam-band crowd that comes, and we all share in the experience. I hope they can keep it going.

NICK DERISO: It set up well for a reunion of the entire original line up of the Black Italians, after some two decades. You seemed to fall right back into place, despite the time away.
JIMMY VIVINO: I play with the rhythm section every day, and have for the last 25 or 30 years — with Worm (drummer James Wormworth) and (bassist) Mike (Merritt). Of course, with (multi-instrumentalist) Danny Louis, every time Gov’t Mule blows by, I’m up there with those guys. Danny and I have known each other even longer than I have known Mike and James. (Vocalist) Catherine (Russell) is always easy, because she’s just the best singer in the universe, to me. It’s very hard to get on the microphone after Catherine Russell sings. (Laughs.) She’s a secret weapon to me, a ball of energy. (Harmonica player) Felix (Cabrera) and I go way back the longest; we play together a lot on the East Coast, in different blues bands. We go back over 40 years together. It’s always family, and a joyful noise.

NICK DERISO: You originally played with Mike and James while on tour with Johnnie Johnson. Take us back to those days.
JIMMY VIVINO: I was well aware of who Johnnie was. He was the connection to everything when I felt stalled musically. Getting with Johnnie literally kicked up everything. He taught us, with a cutting look, about dynamics, about playing the right stuff. He was the sweetest guy, but he was in control of the band. He was driving, and we all learned a lot about soul and groove — just the real blues, though Johnnie never called it blues. Chuck Berry never called it rock ‘n’ roll, either. They just played music, and we all put labels on it. It’s really just indigenous African-American music. There’s always a bit of country in it, too. Johnnie loved country, and so did Chuck Berry. Those guys were listening to the Opry when they were growing up. So, that’s why you hear a lot of country in Chuck Berry’s music, and in Johnnie’s piano playing, too. The lines get blurred, and crossed, and that’s the beginning of what we call rock ‘n’ roll. At a point when I wasn’t sure what to do musically, to fall into that was a blessing. It helped me remember that this is where it’s all coming from. From there, Mike and James and I started playing around town together. We worked with Son Seals, with Hubert Sumlin, just about everybody that came through town. We became a pretty good rhythm section, and everything I’ve done since then I’ve tried to include those guys. So, Johnnie was the first deep experience that I had musically. That’s where the deep groove came from.

NICK DERISO: Explain what working with Al Kooper has meant to you.
JIMMY VIVINO: When I met him, he picked up a band I was playing with. He said to me, basically: “Sorry, I can’t use you, because we do the same thing.” I was playing guitar and keyboards. He said: “I need to take the band, but I can’t take you.” I said: “That’s OK, man, I’ll carry your guitar for you.” I just wanted to know him. He’s now my best friend but, at the time, I was just a fan like everybody else. We found we were so similar in a lot of ways. Finally, after that band broke up, Al called and said: “Me and you, we really need to do something together.” He said: “I’ll just play keyboards,” and I said: “No, you’ll just play B-3.” (Laughs.) Because he wasn’t playing B-3 back then. It would just be a four-piece band, because I always felt the Super Session period was very important. Michael (Bloomfield) was very important to me, the most important guitar player in my life. To get a chance to do something stripped down like that was the plan. For the most part, that was what the Re-Kooperators were about, to bring that Super Session sound out again. I think we did a pretty good job of it. We’re having a great time, still.

NICK DERISO: I keep coming back to “Song for Levon” from 13 Live. It’s such a heartfelt sentiment.
JIMMY VIVINO: On the plane on the way to the first night of rehearsals, I just had a thought — and I wrote it down. It almost shouldn’t have been on the album; it’s such a personal thing. But everybody said I should put it on there, so I did. You know, James Wormworth was lucky enough to be playing Levon’s kit in the barn that night, and — I can’t explain it to you — his presence was strongly felt all night long.

NICK DERISO: Has there ever been a better singing drummer?
JIMMY VIVINO: He’s the voice of America. Being with him was like talking to history. There was something about him. He always told me the story of Elvis coming through playing on a flatbed truck in Helena (Arkansas), when he was a kid. That’s what made him want to get a set of drums, I think, when he saw (original Presley drummer) D.J. (Fontana) playing. You know, he was mostly a mandolin and guitar player. That’s why his rhythm was so unique. No one will ever be as natural a drummer and singer at the same time as Levon was. You couldn’t really separate it. He cut his tracks while playing. It’s the only way he could do it. God, I miss him. But he’s always with us.

NICK DERISO: Archetypical moments like that, the Elvis story, are what convinces most people that Levon had more to do with the construction of the Band’s songs than the writing credits let on.
JIMMY VIVINO: There’s always the debate about songwriting versus collaboration, versus storytelling. It’s a personal thing. It’s up to the writer to say: “Gee, Levon told me this story, I should put him down.” It’s totally up to the writer. But then someone takes offense years later, because people say: “Hey, I know this story came from you.” The lines are very blurred. So I don’t like to talk bad about anybody. I know there was a lot of bad blood about the songwriting credits. I do know this: Without the inspiration, there is no song. Without those voices to deliver your message, there’s no song, either. Some bands have a policy that everyone in the room becomes a writer — like U2. Some band’s don’t. What can you say about that? The Beatles didn’t have that policy, that everyone’s a writer. The lines were drawn, and it was the same situation in the Band. Robbie was the writer. Now, I don’t know because I wasn’t in the room. But I do know I’ve heard the stories where those characters come from. A lot of them came from the stories that Levon and Rick told, and that Richard and Garth told.

NICK DERISO: Together, they created something that clearly means a lot to you.
JIMMY VIVINO: The most important group of my generation was the Band. They made Eric Clapton break up Cream. They made George Harrison doubt what the Beatles were doing. They turned Elton John on his ear as a writer, too. Tumbleweed Connection comes out, and it was almost written in the spirit of a Band album. All of a sudden, he’s singing about the Civil War, “My Father’s Gun” and riverboats. Everybody wanted to be in the Band. Whether they ever had a hit single or not doesn’t matter. They were the most most important band from America of that generation, to me.

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