Review: Al Kooper Brings Us All Back Home at the High Line Ballroom
Like so many others before me, I heard Al Kooper’s “product,” so to speak, before I knew that it was him who I heard. When I was 3 or 4 years old, my dad played me Highway 61 Revisited on the record player and when “Like A Rolling Stone” caught the record needle, I heard the smooth undercurrents of that unlikely organ pump through an otherwise raucous song. I had no idea of what I was listening to at the time – I was far too young to understand the song, the lyrics or the immediate impact it had had on rock n’ roll. All I knew was that I was drawn to the sound – to the rhythm, the melody, the beat and that organ. I wanted to listen to the lead into the chorus over and over again, because like a compulsion, I needed to keep listening to the sound of the organ hitting those high notes, right as Dylan sings: “How does it feeeeel…”
About ten years later, I was an awkward 13 year-old – who didn’t know I was awkward, thank goodness. I still listened to those old records, which had by then become supplemented by an extensive cassette tape collection and a burgeoning compact disc library. I don’t quite remember how I learned of the concert at The Bottom Line in New York City, but somehow I had gotten word that Al Kooper and The Blues Project was playing a show there. It was the middle of winter – one of the frigid January nights in Manhattan when the air hurts your skin – and my mom hauled me into that old rock n’ roll club to listen to electric blues and watch as Al Kooper, Danny Kalb and Steve Katz played in one of their original hangouts.
Maybe it was because I was so young at the time, but I managed to get myself a seat right next to Al’s Hammond B3 and I sat on my wooden stool staring up at him for nearly two hours. This was before the days that smoking was banned in New York City clubs, and I remember my eyes burning and tearing towards the end of the night. I must have forgotten to blink – or I was so captivated that blinking seemed a mere distraction – that by the end of the night, my eyes burned and watered. With my mom’s blessing, I hung around after the show until Al walked to the bar and I proudly stuck out my hand, introduced myself and asked for an autograph. That was the last time I saw Al Kooper until 10 days ago.
The High Line Ballroom opened in Manhattan in 2007 and filled a venue void created after the tragic closing of The Bottom Line in 2004. The new space is bigger, the floors aren’t nearly as sticky and the ghosts living in the walls might not yet feel at home, but the High Line welcomes the likes of Al Kooper, Rambin’ Jack Elliott and Bobby Keys and I’d say we’re a better city because of it. In the great tradition of old-fashioned promotion, I received a flyer on the street for an upcoming Al Kooper and Jimmy Vivino concert. I wanted to feel those goose bumps again – I wanted to stare in awe for so long that my eyes burned.
The night was meant to be a tribute to Mike Bloomfield – and it was. But, beyond a tribute to Mike Bloomfield, the show seemed to be a poignant tribute to times long past and to a whole slew of fallen comrades over the years. Jimmy Vivino honored the great Bloomfield with tremendous guitar nods to the blues legend and a now gray-haired, slow-moving Kooper took the stage with sunglasses on and swaying in a way that suggested that his eyesight is deteriorating. With the passing of so many musical greats this year, there was a shadow of mortality hovering over the show with recurrent references to the rhythm section that Heaven’s been acquiring this year, most recently with Levon Helm and Duck Dunn.
In the true spirit of the blues, the threat of mortality may have been expected, though it hardly cast a pall on the electricity and energy that Kooper, Vivino and their guest, John Sebastian gifted the audience. This blues, of course, wasn’t the soul stealing devil blues of Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton – this was the experimental blues of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It wasn’t the blues of tragedy and heartache; it was the blues of mind expansion, sound alteration and the musical conception of instruments that were never thought to belong together, but somehow found a home in each other’s presence. And, 30 years later, those instruments, in all of their weirdness and magic still fit. With Al Kooper playing his Hammond with one hand and his Ondioline with the other on “His Holy Modal Majesty,” it sounded appropriately strange; its oddness still mesmerized the audience.
The countdown to retirement was on for many of 150 or so attendees at the High Line that night and shows like this, I imagine, brought them right back to being 20 years old and listening to Super Session in their dorm rooms. During an encore of “Albert’s Shuffle,” the 60 year-old man in front of me sat in a pinstripe suit with a loosened tie around a white collar, and simply closed his eyes, played hand drums on the table and nodded his head and shoulders for the entire 10-minute blues instrumental.
I may not have journeyed back to a dorm room or to the Newport Folk Festival to witness Al Kooper take a young Bob Dylan electric, but as the show ended and Jimmy Vivino sang the first verse of “Like A Rolling Stone,” and Al Kooper’s still unlikely organ pounded through the chorus, I sat like my 3 year-old self, entranced by the sound coming off of that stage. Once again, my eyes burned when I couldn’t break my stare, intent on studying Al as he swung his right hand to the top of his organ after every verse. I again remembered what it was like to incessantly move the record needle back every minute and half because of that insatiable need to hear a sound that I had never heard before.
Sure, the night was a tribute to Mike Bloomfield. It was an experimental blues show after many of the experiments had already been conducted. But, maybe more than anything, it was a show that mesmerized the audience not by any fleeting wave of whimsical nostalgia, but rather by the sheer, honest sense of life and youth that these songs carried with them after all these years.