[28 February 2014]
According to rumor, Johnny Winter should have died more than 40 years ago. The gossip about his drug addictions, the secret information about the short lifespan of albinos, and stories of his hard living ways that produced such powerful rocking blues, suggested Winter was not long for this world. Hell, he even released an album back in 1973 called Still Alive and Well to tease those who thought he should already be in the ground.
But he didn’t die. If anything he kept growing stronger. And faster, at least during the time from his first 1968 recordings on the The Progressive Blues Experiment until his last Columbia Records release in 1975, Saints and Sinners. Winter seemed to get more powerful and energetic on every disc. He was a blues rocker with an emphasis on the rocker. But then Winter changed to a more blues oriented musician. As this compilation shows, Winter always had elements of both genre in his electric guitar playing. His arc as a creative player does not show a simple curve as much as reveals patterns about the man, his music, and the times.
This four-CD box set chronologically covers Winter’s growth and development from the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s, with a smattering of later cuts thrown in at the end. The 56 tracks here come from 27 different albums and also include cuts that were never previously released on disc and were generally hard to find, such as note-happy live version of “Highway 61 Revisited” from the Bob Dylan Thirtieth Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1993. The anthology shows Winter had the cosmic ability to shred and find the soul of a song from the beginning. He took his axe to newly discovered worlds of feedback and kept on whacking.
However, to appreciate Winter one needs to put his music in context. For example, the first two tracks here from 1968 are full-tilt boogie blues that rock hard and steady. On “Mean Town Blues”, one can hear the Texas matrix from which such acts as ZZ Top emerged. The constant chugging-tugging of the rhythms suggests the virtue of just moving during a period in American life when no one wanted to just sit still. Less than a year later he’s performing at Woodstock, where Jimi Hendrix famously turned feedback and the national anthem into a re-creation of bombastic battle. Winter’s “Leland Mississippi Blues”, included here, suggests domestic disarray. A white man performing black music was still a radical statement; in fact, even more so than in the fifties, because of the plague of race riots during the more recent era. The blues offered the pain of authenticity, of real emotionalism in the face of sunshine and love.
Other recordings from 1969 included Winter’s first two Columbia albums, and cemented his reputation as a heavy artists who could bring the goods. His vocals went from a cracked whisper to a throaty roar. He always sounded like he was just about to lose his voice with the strain of singing, but of course he never did. Winter’s fingers blaze across the strings only to stop and sustain a note and make it louder. On “Hustled Down in Texas” from Second Winter, the notes fly by so fast and furiously one expects his guitar to just melt in his hands. Winter never gets sloppy. He’s always in control of the action.
Winter productively continues into the seventies playing electric guitar and looking to set the land speed record. Critics frequently compare him to Alvin Lee (10 Years After) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra), but there’s no contest. All three were the masters of haste and pace playing at rapid rates hitherto unheard on the instrument. Listening to his previously unreleased version of the old blues chestnut “Eyesight to the Blind” recorded live at the Atlanta Pop Festival is like witnessing a holy miracle. He might not be able to see, but Winter plays intensely enough to make a deaf person hear! What’s that you say? Exactly, you heard and if you didn’t because of an impediment it would be hard not to feel the vibrations in the air.
As the ‘70s progressed, the war in Vietnam ended, the Watergate years passes, music in general became more mellow and Winter’s loud and proud style became less popular. Columbia dropped him and in age of disco, punk, and country rock, Winter seemed old-fashioned. It was around that time that Winter back to an even older time and started producing Muddy Waters. Waters was a living blues legend who producers tried to turn into something stylish and hip throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Winter took Waters back to his roots and played the electric blues without affectation and made Waters critically and commercially popular. The association also invigorated Winter. Tracks such as 1977’s “Tired of Tryin’” offer hard drivin’ blues where his guitar sounds more like a whip cracking than an electric monster.
Since then, Winter has earned a reputation as one of America’s greatest blues players—not blues rock—although he still plays that style from time to time. He was nominated for Grammy Awards during the ‘80s for the Blues and was celebrated for his live performances. A fine example of Winter’s straight Blues invocations can be found here on “Master Mechanic” from his 1985 Alligator release Serious Business. The risqué lyrics complement the nasty guitar licks to create a deep and penetrating sound. The Cold War fades away, and the one thing the American public shares with its new Russian and Eastern European allies is a taste for pornography and violence. This song offers the promise of both.
Winter continues to perform and record during the nineties and early 21st century, although not as frequently. He still plays live. On February 23rd, Winter will play a special birthday night performance at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York to celebrate this box set’s release. Judging by the evidence here, a couple of 2011 cuts recorded with Vince Gill and Derek Trucks respectively, Winter still knows how to coax his guitar into making strange and beautiful music that can pack a punch.