Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Rock icon Al Kooper’s voice was dry as dust as he addressed The Egg’s almost-full Swyer Theatre. “Y’know, it’s too bad you couldn’t go out on a Saturday night and hear some good music.”
Over the laughter of the crowd, Jimmy Vivino shot back, “I wish I’d known I had to fly all the way across the country to play some!”
Mind you, that’s Vivino’s life since he became the music director for Conan O’Brien’s current talk show: Make assloads of money five days a week by filling time during the commercial breaks, and then fly someplace on the weekend and play music he wants to play! In this case, Vivino was linking up with his old running partner and paying tribute to one of Kooper’s former running partners – the late guitar genius Mike Bloomfield.
For Kooper’s part, this was not just a one-night thing. He’s in the middle of a six-month period building a four-disc boxed set of Bloomfield’s work, spanning his time with Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the short-lived genius of Bloomfield’s own group the Electric Flag, and the various recordings Bloomfield made with Kooper and others – not the least of which was the seminal 1968 jam date Super Session. “I’ve got Mike on the brain,” Kooper told us. “This is, like, my night off from work.”
“Now you know what it’s like to be me ALL THE TIME,” Vivino laughed.
After a quick audio clip of Bloomfield doing one of his scattershot introductions at the Fillmore West, drummer Ralph Rosen and bassist Jesse Williams laid down the foundation for the opening warm-up tune “Lonely Woman.” Kooper and Vivino came on next, with Kooper ambling slowly over to his stack of keyboards while Vivino strapped on a gorgeous Gibson Les Paul. Kooper still has the same haircut and Wayfarer sunglasses he wore back in the day, and his black long-sleeved t-shirt had a design as wild as the psychedelic shirts he wore with the Blues Project. For his part, Vivino wore a broad-brimmed brown hat over a flannel shirt and jeans – perfect for the man who plans to enjoy his weekend.
A quick slashing move from Vivino cut the jazzed-up song off as he counted the band into a slow blues take on Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song.” Kooper couldn’t hit the high notes on the chorus, but you don’t go to an Al Kooper show to hear him sing; you go to sop up all the tasty goodness he serves on his Hammond C-3 organ, which he was doing right from the jump, and then kicked the flavor up a notch when Vivino had the quartet segue into “Albert’s Shuffle,” the opening track from Super Session. It’s ironic that Kooper’s become so closely associated with the organ, since he’d never even played the instrument before he talked his way into playing it on the sessions for Dylan’s breakout disc Highway 61 Revisited: Kooper had planned to try and play guitar on the session, but when he heard Bloomfield (who he didn’t know at the time), that plan was promptly circular-filed.
While Kooper and Bloomfield were friends and contemporaries, Vivino happily cites Bloomfield as a mentor, and from the way Vivino was wailing on this night, he definitely took every lesson Bloomfield taught to heart. He found the blues inherent in the Highway 61 title track and sent it soaring out of sight; Vivino linked the Butterfield Band and the Electric Flag with a scorching medley of “Born in Chicago” and “Killing Floor”; and he mated the Super Session cruiser “Stop” with a wild rave-up of “That’s All Right, Mama.” Vivino had told us earlier “It’s time Mike got the respect he deserves.” Vivino paid Bloomfield mad respect to his mentor all night long.
As much as Bloomfield influenced Kooper and Vivino, the level to which they inspire each other can’t be measured. Their wild version of “His Holy Modal Majesty” mashed up blues and progressive jazz in a way that matched the jammed-out madness Kooper and Bloomfield laid down on Super Session. A mid-set kinda-sorta acoustic set had Kooper playing mandolin while Vivino worked out on an electric-acoustic Steel National guitar; this configuration resulted in very tasty readings of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Tampa Red’s bawdy “Bad Girl Blues,” the latter tune featuring some righteous blues harp by Rosen. Vivino paid tribute to Rosen afterwards, recalling that they hadn’t played together since they worked with keyboardist Bruce Katz.
“As long as it wasn’t Steve Katz,” Kooper cracked, name-checking one of the mutineers that pushed him out of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Both players had fun all night, whether they were playing or not. Vivino especially showed a great sense of humor as he talked about Bloomfield, mentioning at one point that he had influenced Bill Graham to book blues acts at the Fillmore. “People like Freddie King, Albert King, B.B. King… Morganna King!” When the crowd broke up, Vivino laughed and added, “And you’re old enough to know who she is! That’s fucked up!” We were also old enough to know what to do on the chorus of a breakneck version of “I Got My Mojo Workin’,” which closed out the night with a very loud BANG!
After the show, the elevators were chock-full going down to the parking garage, as our crowd mixed with the younger crowd that packed comedian/musician Demetri Martin’s show in The Egg’s larger Hart Theatre. I couldn’t help wondering whether any of the people at the Martin show would be watching Martin do his thing 40 years from now, as we had watched Kooper and Vivino play tremendous music from 40 years before. My guess? I’m thinking, “No.”