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Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter

(Legacy; US: 24 May 2004; UK: Available as import)

Neo-Trad Has His Day

This is a good album in the great white-blues-rock tradition, played, of course, by a virtuoso guitarist. And give Winter credit for being more than just a virtuoso: he plays with a dirty rock raunch, one that’s both distinctive (he sounds a lot hornier than Clapton, not quite as trippy as Hendrix) and appropriate. He even has a good, distinctive voice, full of slurred high spirits that accentuate the dirtiness of his playing even as they balance against the technical precision of his fretwork. And one of his original compositions is good enough to kick off the album, even as the rest keep the mood going between the classics he covers (like “When You Got a Good Friend”, “Be Careful with a Fool”, and that evergreen gem of creepy lust, “Good Morning Little School Girl”).

So take all that as given and then factor in that, since this album was first released in 1969, there have been relatively few really noteworthy new blues artists to be introduced to the scene (Robert Cray, certainly, and Stevie Ray Vaughan ... and I guess you could count Bonnie Raitt, too). Especially with Winter’s blues purism and virtuosity fully evident here (he covers Robert Johnson’s “When You Got a Good Friend” with full loyally to its solo acoustic roots, after all), this album stands as one of the latter-day highlights from a fading genre caught in its own tradition.

Maybe it’s the “caught in its own tradition” part that makes me less enthusiastic about this good, likable album than I otherwise might have been. Like Vaughan, but unlike Cray or Raitt, Winter’s virtuosity shores up on blues tradition and makes new room in that tradition for rock boogie and tempo even as it fails to add new psychological insight to the genre.

In one of Cray’s great songs, for instance, the narrator leaves his woman because “I caught her having lunch with some new guy”, leaving her everything he owns except his good lovin’. The title of the song is “I Guess I Showed Her”.

Even as Cray’s boasts fall within the traditional blues boasts (“I’m like a Mississippi bullfrog sittin’ on a hollow stump / I got so many women I don’t know which way to jump”, for starters), his song is also a self-conscious reflection of how the times have changed, how, in the real world where life is actually lived, traditional blues machismo and boasting is pretty ridiculous. So Cray’s great innovation was to satirize (or otherwise comment on) the tension of that mentality even as he mastered its formal—both musical and lyrical—requirements.

It’s not having a new slant, whether personal or sociological or both, that limits this good album to being merely good. And though Winter’s bawdy enthusiasm carries the day on most of the songs, it also limits a specific song like “Good Morning Little School Girl”. It’s a good song and it’s got a beat you can dance to, but Winter’s version sounds too rollicking and spirited when heard against the slow drawls and moans of, say, Junior Wells’s version. The first is a fun song filled with enthusiasm at the idea of seducing a hot young school girl; the latter sounds like someone actually trying to seduce a hot young school girl. If you’re going to get your kicks from feeling like a lecherous uncle at a family reunion, why be Platonic about it?

Put the album on, play it through, and, if you like rocking blues played by a dirty dog (like I do), you’re bound to like it. But I don’t know if you’ll end up loving it. Winter wears his blues loyalty on his sleeve and he’s got the chops to make that mean something. But he lacks the, um, psychological chops to take the music beyond being only (!) dirty-sounding fun, to make a single song as sharp and insightful (or as attuned to the specific lyrical demands of the song), though the songs taken together can rock your next party.

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