To the untrained observer, the pairing of a ‘60s pop icon with a late-night guitar master might seem a bit mismatched, but when the musicians in question are John Sebastian and Jimmy Vivino, it makes perfect sense. Appearing as “Johnny and Jimmy” at New York’s City Winery on Friday, September 14, the duo shared not only their mutual history as roots-and-blues aficionados, but genuine devotees to the legacy and perpetuation of the music.
Throughout the evening, they relayed tales from their fruitful careers, tripping over each others’ stories like two excited brothers. As Sebastian recounted a phone call from mandolin marvel Yank Rachell, Vivino exclaimed that, “Not many phone calls from John begin with ‘guess who’s alive!’” Bringing the audience into the act, they performed a tune that Rachell taught them, the colorful “Tappin’ That Thing,” explaining that Rachell claimed the title refrain as his own, instead instructing them that their line was the following cry of “great God a-mighty!,” a part they generously gave to the crowd.
Casual fans may not remember (or ever have known) that the two were core members of Sebastian’s J-Band, a dream line-up that included jug band legends Fritz Richmond and Geoff Muldaur. The pair opened the show with the title of the band’s only album, 1998’s I Want My Roots. Working through covers from legends like Mississippi John Hurt, and some originals, the show was a perfect, accessible introduction to roots for the newbies, and a 360-degree view of the genre for enthusiasts. Vivino showcased his nimble fingerwork on electric and slide guitars (usually rather restricted as part of Conan O’Brien’s band – the man can play like no one’s business), while Sebastian augmented expertly on guitar and a piercing harmonica that wailed like a tuneful banshee (that’s a good thing).
And of course, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without Sebastian breaking out a few Lovin’ Spoonful tunes, including “Daydream” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.” He explained the genesis of “Do You Believe In Magic” from the Martha and the Vandellas classic “Heat Wave,” wondering if doubling the speed of the catchy chord progression would make it “twice as cool”? He was right. A stripped-down “Summer in the City” rounded out the show, proving that even a Number One pop hit from the ‘60s could take a bluesy transformation in the right hands.
A running thread throughout the night was a feeling of intimacy; City Winery’s rustic and cozy interior easily creating the illusion that the venue was actually just a living room, where two friends gathered to jam a little and reminisce. At the same time, one couldn’t help but be aware that there was something special happening onstage: the fusion of two legends, seemingly disparate but really two halves of a whole.