Despite an impressive career well into its fourth decade, enigmatic guitarist Johnny Winter has never successfully parlayed his fret board prowess into mainstream success. The perpetual bridesmaid to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Winter has carved out a niche for himself as a blues purist; perfect for the discerning palate, yet a bit too eclectic for the masses.
Now after an eight-year album hiatus, Winter returns with a baker’s dozen of blues tunes perfectly suited to his reputation; some unique, some formulaic, all decidedly, (and unapologetically), Johnny Winter.
At the very least, Winter’s playing is as sharp as ever, as he glides and slides effortlessly, conjuring images of his six string contemporaries at every turn. The ghost of Duane Allman is conspicuously present on the album’s title track and “Sweet Little Baby”, while the tasty blues-rock guitar of “Lone Wolf” is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “Hound Dog”. Even traces of Robert Cray can be found, as evidenced by “I Smell Smoke” and “Pack Your Bags”. This is not to say that Winter has lost his sense of originality; he ambles along with “The Monkey Song”, then kicks his trademark twang into high gear with “Cheatin’ Blues” and the wonderfully upbeat “Last Night”.
As with any album, though, there is the requisite amount of unspectacular filler. “Shakedown” and “Sugar Coated Love” are generic at best, and something of a disappointment considering Winter’s reputation and capacities as an artist. Fortunately redemption is not far off, as I’m a Bluesman is anchored by a single song, “That Wouldn’t Satisfy”. The lone excursion into slide acoustic, and the unquestioned highlight of the album, the track has Robert Johnson’s fingerprints all over it, as Winter displays his fluid stripped down style with magnificent results. If only the album had more
As good as Winter’s technical skills are, the weak link in his arsenal comes by way of his mediocre singing. Never possessing true blues huskiness in his voice, the level of his playing successfully cloaks this shortcoming most of the time. Unfortunately, the old school flair of “Let’s Start All Over Again” would be far superior if augmented by some gritty Eric Burden-esque vocals.
For the most part, I’m a Bluesman is a fairly pedestrian effort. The album unquestionably fills the void for true Winter aficionados waiting nearly a decade for new material, but probably won’t resonate as strongly for the average blues fan. More of an acquired taste, Johnny Winter can nonetheless hold his own with the best of them, and will hopefully visit the studio a bit more frequently in the near future.