Prisoners of Second Avenue revive sounds and spirit of Fillmore East

Jimmy Vivino interview

From left, Jimmy Vivino, Rich Pagano and John Conte perform together as Prisoners of Second Avenue.

The “Second Avenue” in The Prisoners of Second Avenue refers to the location of the legendary New York rock venue, The Fillmore East. The band — featuring guitarist Jimmy Vivino, drummer Rich Pagano and bassist John Conte (everyone sings) — is devoted to the songs, and the spirit, of artists who played there: Jimi Hendrix, The Band, The Who, Cream, Traffic and so on. They’ll perform at House of Independents in Asbury Park on Aug. 11.

Pagano is a member of Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux, and Conte has been in Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes since 2008; both have numerous other projects as well. Vivino — who leads Conan O’Brien’s Basic Cable Band, and is also a member of The Fab Faux — grew up in New Jersey, and went to the Fillmore East often before it closed in the summer of 1971 (when he was 16). I talked to him by phone, last week, about The Prisoners, and his memories of The Fillmore.

JIMMY VIVINO

Q: I imagine some of your first experiences seeing concerts was at The Fillmore.

A: Yeah, that was probably the first, outside of … I mean, in the old days …the bands would be on a circuit … they didn’t have this radius issue that we have today: You can’t play in Asbury and play in New Brunswick the same weekend. But we would see bands at a high school, we’d see them at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, we’d see them at the Fillmore, and we’d see them at the Fox Theatre in Hackensack, all in, like, one weekend. You could follow the same band to three or four different places. And we did. You know, we did with Johnny Winter, and Mountain, and, you know, local bands that would open up. I think there was a lot more live music back then. You’d go to the Fillmore and pay $3.50 and see three bands. Three recording artists on one show, and heavy ones, too.

So that’s the first memory I really have of rock stars — seeing real rock stars. And also, (Fillmore East owner) Bill Graham had a way of mixing things up. You’d have a jazz band, and then Albert King. I remember one show I saw was Albert King and the Allman Brothers, and the J. Geils Band. You know, the J. Geils Band opened, and then the Allman Brothers played. They had a new album out called Idlewild South at the time. It must have been 1971. And then Albert King closed the show. It was just a normal day at the Fillmore.

That’s what we do with Prisoners. The idea is: All this great music that I grew up hearing, I just wanted to get a band together to get into a basement and play it. I did it with John and Rich, and then we decided to go out and start playing this stuff live. And it’s become a really fun project.

Q: So the idea is to play everything from that era: Rock, blues, Southern rock, progressive rock …

A: It’s all kind of hard blues. English blues-based, basically. A lot of those bands, like The Who, they were all R&B bands, just playing louder and harder, and more guitar oriented, you know. It was all about guitars. That’s what the English brought in. Really, before that, we had horn bands. It was rhythm and blues. A different kind of music.

Q: And you’re basically in a power trio format for these shows.

A: Yeah. Probably the original Gov’t Mule was the inspiration. When Matt (Abts) and (Allen) Woody and Warren (Haynes) first started … I don’t know was the year was, I imagine it was ’94 or something like that … when I saw that band for the first time, I said, “Oh, somebody’s doing this again.” ‘Cause nobody was really doing it. That had kind of left. There were bands like Free in the ’70s that were doing it and I kind of saw Warren and those guys like Cream, or Free.

A vintage Fillmore East ad, promoting shows in late 1969 and early 1970.

Q: In a way, that kind of became metal: A lot of the spirit of that lived on into the metal scene, though it’s not quite the same as the more blues-based music you’re talking about.

A: Well, that’s absolutely right. And it’s all because it was, like, riff-based. Metal took the riff side of it over everything: The importance was on the riff. When Ozzy (Osbourne) talks about cutting the first Black Sabbath album, and I think it’s in 1968, they were just out playing blues bars. They were a blues band. And they pulled over on the road and then in like a week or less, they recorded that first album. They thought they were playing the blues. If you listen to it, Ozzy played a lot of harmonica, and most of (Tony) Iommi’s soloing is blues-based. So it’s not like what became heavy metal now, where guys like Van Halen influenced the sound of the guitar playing … pushed into a different place, you know. It was more blues then. Now it’s more violin concertos, set to every riff. (laughs)

I guess for a while they called it acid rock, in the late ’60s. That was really just heavy British blues. The Americans were playing blues at the same time, like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but it was really traditional Chicago style. It didn’t have that hard edge. It survived, though. It’s still out there. There are younger bands that do it, too.

It’s a satisfying thing when you’re a guitar player, to plug in and turn up. That’s what it is. (laughs)

Q: So what are your memories of The Fillmore, as a venue? What it was like to go to shows there?

A: Well, the thing I remember about it was that they had ushers (laughs), with flashlights. They would hand you a program, and they would seat you. It was very formal, for a bunch of hippies! And it was well organized. Bill Graham ran it really well, and the people there were really nice to everybody. People were tripping and smoking dope and doing everything in there that they were doing everywhere else, and it was allowed. There wasn’t any police action in there. So it was a real kind of refuge, I guess, from what was happening with the Vietnam War and everything else. And it was a place where everybody went and just dug the music, man. It had the greatest vibe.

It was just an old, rundown, Lower East Side Yiddish theater. They put some lights up: I remember the Joshua Light Show. They had an overhead projector and a big, giant screen, and they would do this oil-based art stuff. It would look like amoebas. I don’t know what they term is, but they would, with an eyedropper, just drop colors in there and they’d explode. And they’d show cartoons, like the old black and white “Felix the Cat,” or Popeye cartoons would come on before the show. So we were like a bunch of kids at a matinee, you know, at a theater in the ’50s or ’60s. It was the same crowd that used to go to see monster movies. We’d go on a Saturday afternoon and sit in there and watch these monster movies from the ’50s, all afternoon. It was the same crowd now, 10 years later, getting together, watching cartoons and music, and having a good time.

The funny thing was leaving: You’d hit the reality of the street, a little bit stoned or whatever. But the music would stay with you right out into the street, man. People would pour out into the street, and it was just magical. It still happens when you leave a concert. Everybody leaves together: everyone just dissipates into the air, and we’re back into life.

But it was a real retreat, I think. Bill Graham educated us, and insisted on having diversity. All the things they talk about now went unspoken. It was just a given that you were going to get all kinds of music, and all kinds of people were going to be there, and there was going to be no trouble. That was just the way it was back then. So for that short period of two or three years, it was really fantastic down there on the Lower East Side.

I have a ticket stub I’m looking at here: March 15, 1969. $3. I bought a ticket to see Al Kooper, ’cause he was my hero, but he didn’t show. Procol Harum were the headliners. And subbing for Al Kooper was The Byrds, when Clarence White had just joined. It was fantastic. It was right around the time of Untitled. And there was also a band called The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, which was Mike Finnigan on organ and Jerry Hahn on guitar, and a drummer. They were sort of a progressive acid jazz band, and they opened up, and then The Byrds played, and then Procol Harum played. And it was just great.

Q: Was just the first show you saw there, or were there others before that?

A: That might be the first one I saw there, ’cause I was 13, and we went with a friend’s brother who had a car — this great green Chevy — and drove us. We all piled in there. It was my friend’s brother who was just 18 and he was like 5 years older than us. It was him and the four guys in my band at the time.

Q: I assume you were living in Jersey at this point?

A: That’s right, living in Jersey — in Glen Rock. We drove in, and he parked the car somewhere, and we walked over there. It was my first time down on the Lower East Side. Back then, the Lower East Side wasn’t what it is now. There were no baby carriages and hipsters. It was pretty down and dirty, man — a lot of drug addicts. I mean, serious junkies. And homeless, as always. But the city was way different. If you look at a movie, even, of how the city was in the ’60s and the ’70s, it’s way different than it is now. So there was always this little edge. You had to look around a lot, to make sure you were safe. ‘Cause we were from Jersey. We didn’t know much about the city. But then you got into this peaceful situation. You went into The Fillmore, and it was a world of its own, I have to say.

It’s a strong memory for me, and it drives me constantly. That musical excellence. And you hope that some kid walks in sometime and sees you for the first time playing, somewhere, and they get hit with the bug. That’s what does it for musicians. Kids can listen to music all day long, on their iPhone or whatever, but when they hear it live, it can knock you over. It’s different. It’s still important.

Q: Of course, even after The Fillmore closed, the spirit lived on in places like The Capitol.

A: Yeah, and also, like, the Academy of Music, which was turned into The Palladium downtown on 14th Street. But there was the Fox Theatre in Hackensack, too, and the Capitol in Passaic. Those were the Jersey places.

The Capitol, I think I saw more great bands there … One time, I went to see Stevie Wonder there, and the place was half full. The Butterfield Blues Band was opening for them. This is like 1970 or ’71, before the Stones had him on tour, and Music of My Mind had just come out, before Talking Book. The place was half filled — or half empty, depending on which cup you’re looking at! But it was one of the best things that I ever saw in my life, man.

But then it started where … after that, when The Stones and everybody started playing in The Garden, it changed. That hurt those little venues a lot, because then we’d have to go to The Garden or out to Long Island, you know, and see a show in an arena or a stadium. Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City … we saw The Band and The Dead there. It got bigger. But you weren’t getting a $3 ticket anymore, either. You weren’t getting three bands for $3, and the smallness of those early days went away very quickly.

So it’s different. But it’s still the same, in the way it hits you. When the lights go down, and that shit starts coming off the stage, that’s the thing that never changes.

Q: Is it frustrating for you to not be able to spend so much time on a project like this? Or is it good to kind to be able to come to it occasionally and not have it be your main thing?

A: Well, it keeps it fresh. I’ll tell you that, man. We don’t get to do it all the time. Or, it’s not that we don’t get to do it, but we don’t have to do it all the time. I’m not sure we would want to do it all the time. Everybody has a lot of different projects going right now. This is one that just pops its head up, usually once a year. We’ll get together the night before, or Wednesday night or something. And then we’ll play Friday and Saturday.

Prisoners of Second Avenue perform at House of Independents in Asbury Park, Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit ticketweb.com.

There is also a show Aug. 10 at 7:45 p.m. at the Fairfield Stage Company’s StageOne in Fairfield, Conn.

For more on the band, visit facebook.com/PrisonersOfSecondAvenueBand.

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