Jimmy Vivino and the Barn Burners at Iridium/NYC – Friday 14 June, 2013, 2 Sets

New York Live Music Reviews With Greg Burrows:

Jimmy Vivino and the Barn Burners at Iridium/NYC – Friday 14 June, 2013, 2 Sets

Jimmy Vivino: guitar, vocals, keyboards

Jim Wieder: Guitar

Brian Mitchell: Hammond B-3 organ, piano

Byron Isaacs: bass

Randy Ciarlante: drums

Hook Herrera: harmonica

Fred Walcott: percussion [bongo/cowbell, tambourines, shakers]

My wife and I had a visitor in town, her brother, visiting us in New York from a rural region of the Austrian Alps. He hadn’t been here for nearly a decade and we wanted to show him a good time, New York-style.

I was planning some musical entertainment for one of our nights out. After exploring some Broadway show options and realizing that the show we really wanted to see—Motown—had ticket prices starting at $165 (cheap seats sold out, discount tickets not available for this new show yet), I embarked on a search for some burning New York jazz. The jazz options in town that night were not exactly fitting for situation and guest: Sonny Fortune at Smoke? Azar Lawrence at Jazz Standard? Ravi Coltrane at Birdland…hmm, that was a close 1st-choice, but it started at 11 p.m.—my family peeps are not exactly night owls. And some of this stuff might be too exploratory and edgy for a visitor from the rural mountains of Austria (even if he is an experienced traveler).

I began to get frustrated and felt like I was running out of ideas (yes, even in New York that can happen), but a last-minute idea had arrived: I checked that evening’s schedule at Iridium: paydirt. It was the amazing Jimmy Vivino & the Barn Burners – essentially, our beloved Midnight Ramble Band (minus of course one of my deepest favorite drummers lately, Levon Helm [RIP] and–this was a disappointment–the Ramble horn section wasn’t included). My wife and I have been to a few Rambles at Levon’s barn in Woodstock and these were musical high points of the past 2 years at least. And besides, how could we resist the peaceful invasion of Woodstock in Midtown Manhattan? Reservations quickly made, plans set.

It turned out to be the right choice. Not only was our guest beaming and rocking to the music all night, but wife was ecstatic with joy and I was gleefully absorbed with nearly everything going on—the blues roots of the playing, the great musicianship, and the deep ties to The Band of this great project. In fact, the original edition of this group, Levon Helm and the Barn Burners, was formed by Levon and Jimmy—Woodstock neighbors at the time—who were looking for something to do on a Saturday night. The very concept of this band has a casual, thrown-together history. Even the name has an ironic tongue-in-cheek humor to it—Levon’s first Woodstock barn burned to the ground in the 1980s and was rebuilt on the same spot as the magnificent home/recording studio/live venue it is today.

In the same casual spirit as the original project, Friday’s gig was a thing Jimmy Vivino threw together somewhat last-minute. He was calling a few of the guys at 1:30 a.m. the night before the gig, as he was almost boasting (jokingly) throughout the night. Also, the onstage banter and informal vibe of the whole thing made it feel as if the audience was privy to a private jam session or meeting of dear old friends having a musical reunion, of sorts. In a sense, it really felt like a Ramble—with some of the original Ramble musicians. I’m guessing that for everyone at Iridium that night, it felt like exactly the right place to be that night—it certainly did for our party of three.

For this [my first] live show review, I’ll focus on The Band aspect of the night’s proceedings—as a lifelong jazz drummer and all-around pop/rock & roll/World musician, I’ve been digging primarily into Levon’s role in The Band’s music only for the past 3 years—rather late in the day I might add [as a young man I found them boring—didn’t get it!], but as the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ Like a snare drum backbeat from Levon’s gloved left hand, it’ll land at just the right Zen moment. I landed in this music in the summer of 2010.

When it comes to appreciating the down-home rootsy brilliance of the music first laid down in the late 1960s onward by Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Brooks and Robbie Robertson, it’s never too late to discover and dig deep into the layers of that original lineup of the group and their uncanny, strangely wonderful music—as exemplified in the 2 most significant records they created collectively alongside the great John Simon as producer (his role in this body of work cannot be underestimated). Already in my late 40s when I was first really moved by their playing/songs (thanks to Mr. Helm keepin’ it goin’ with his weekly Rambles up in Woodstock—and let me add that the Rambles continue on), I arrived at this music not as a stoned kid but as a seasoned adult musician and fan. So any and all reappearances of The Band’s direct legacy and living members is a welcome experience to me—and this show last Friday was made by guys who mostly, in some form or another, have been either later-period members of the group (Wieder, Ciarlante), Ramble band members with Levon (Vivino, Isaacs, Mitchell), or an original Barn Burners veteran (Vivino). 

Handling the drums for the night was Randy Ciarlante—who clearly knows this material really well, not surprisingly, since he was a member of the last active lineup of The Band, being co-drummer/vocalist along with Levon Helm. While I missed the uncanny laid-back-yet-rock-solid feel that Levon provided, it’s not fair to compare ANY drummer to the late great master from Arkansas—so I won’t. Randy is not a Levon ‘clone’ but instead is his own man on the instrument and vocals. As Ramble band member Erik Lawrence (saxophones) has mentioned to me, no drummer—not one—who sat in and played with the Ramble band was able to duplicate or come close to the elusive roadhouse juju that Levon laid down on the drums. And we’re talking about some of the very best drummers in the field today. That said, I felt like some of the tempos felt a little pushed or nervous at times, but maybe that’s because this was a last-minute, little-or-no-rehearsals thing. It was a minor point and didn’t bring the night down.

Guitarist Jim Wieder has lost none of his intensity and snap, and like Ciarlante, knew the Band songs as deeply as anyone can know them and handle them. Also, bassist Byron Isaacs falls into the same category, not surprisingly; he’s a player who really knows the material, even turning out a spine-chillingly beautiful vocal on the rarely-played Band masterpiece Unfaithful Servant. Great renditions were also performed of several other Band masterpieces, including the meandering wonderment of Jawbone, the get-up-out-of-your-seat anthem The Weight, and that strangely chipper ode to performance anxiety, Stage Fright—all pulled off with heartfelt intensity and joy by the Barn Burners. 

Another highlight for me was the work of percussionist Fred Walcott; it is kind of crazy that I haven’t met this guy or caught him on a gig, as most of my life has been spent in or near New York City. He is a top call musician in the recording studios here (what’s left of them) and often tours with well known artists, and is a super warm human being—as grounded and connected as his playing is. His work with tambourines and bongo spiced and moved the grooves in a relaxed-yet-persistent way, lending a lift to the overall ensemble sound. Bringing Fred in for this gig had to be one of the best 1:30 a.m. calls Jimmy Vivino has ever made, I’m guessing. When I first saw him sit down with bongos I said, “huh??” but soon forgot the odd combination of Latin percussion in a blues-driven group. And special mention should be made of the striking presence and playing of blues harmonica master and vocalist Hook Herrera. I’ve never heard his stuff before but I’ll be seeking it out after this gig.

Rounding out the evenings two sets were originals by Vivino, and a handful of time-worn blues classics and ‘classic rock’ favorites mostly out of the 1970s including the harmonica-driven Low Rider. A lot of the graying crowd was out of the 1970s too—but that didn’t stop a dozen or so of them from boogying and moving in a sort of spontaneously formed ‘dance section’ in the club—believe me, it was hard to stay put in my seat. Special mention should be made of the soulful intensity of Brian Mitchell’s work on both the B-3 organ and Iridium’s fine grand piano. And it’s as clear and crisp as a Fender Telecaster’s wail to me now: Jimmy Vivino has my full respect as an all-around musician. His singing, guitar work (in particular some Elmore James-inspired glass bottle slide solos), stage persona, ability to congeal a loose group through two long sets, and deeply rooted knowledge and connection to American roots music is undeniable and respectable. I’m a big fan now and hopefully, if you aren’t already you’ll check out his work. I can almost guarantee it: he’s probably passing through your town or near it sometime soon—the man is a true road warrior.

As my wife, brother-in-law and I sauntered back out toward the lights, traffic and rain of Times Square outside the club, we were filled with the warmth and feeling of celebration that comes along any time great music is played with the right feel and spirit. It’s a lingering sensation that will drive out your misery and worries; when the blues, rootsy rock & roll and the music of The Band are played just right, time stops and souls are healed.

 -Greg Burrows

20 June 2013, Bronx NY