Johnny Winter Band: 18 June 2009 - Palatine, IL
When the word “legend” gets tossed about, Johnny Winter’s ears probably burn for a good reason.
Chicago may be enjoying the summer, but at Durty Nellies, in Palatine, Illinois, die-hards and locals were privy to a Winter Wonderland. Let me qualify that statement. That’s “Winter” as in the “Johnny Winter Band” and “Wonder” as in that feeling of awe ya’ll get when this Beaumont, Texas, guitar-slinging legend performs blues classics to a 500-plus audience. While some nights here might herald high-volume and heavy drinking with a local band desperately trying to sing over brawling truckers, this crowd was so welcoming that you might as well have been on a Hollywood movie set with an elite group of extras.
When the word “legend” gets tossed about, Johnny Winter’s ears probably burn for a good reason. Winter was on the first cover of Guitar World magazine (1980) and according to a 2003 copy of Rolling Stone was once ranked 74th in their list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” In 1988 he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. He performed at Woodstock and his discography boasts more than twenty albums.
True, he’s a different man, now. A wealth of physical ailments -- an injured hip amongst them -- and some harsh lifestyle choices have made him a less versatile performer. He’s no longer able to ricochet across the stage with guitarists like Rick Derringer, extracting bended notes that shadow a mournful cry from his loyal Erlewine Lazer. Winter’s current frailty means he’s not able to engage in an incendiary instrumental call and response either, like back in the day when he was one of the first to incorporate swing in the genre that would be called “Texas blues.” But you can still see why his legendary status attracts so many followers today -- even after forty-plus years in the business. Winter’s willowy tattooed torso, over-sized, signature black Stetson and mane of cotton-candy white hair screams bluesy passion as he hunches over his guitar.
Also onstage is Winter’s backing band, and though each musician comes to the band already boasting an impressive CV, their collective respect toward Winter is evident. Paul Nelson -- Winter’s second guitarist and manager -- is as artfully precise, virtuosic, and symbiotically attached to his instrument as squeaky-clean spark plugs are to a well-scrubbed engine. Influenced by Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert King, Nelson has a charismatic, take-charge quality, juxtaposed with a quiet and unobtrusive presence. His devotion to Winter is evident -- Nelson never upstages him or pulls any surprises. Drummer Vito Liuzzi, whose MySpace quote under influences says, “anyone who performs their art with a burning desire and passion,” holds an infectious grin throughout, as his black beret shifts occasionally on top of his energized bopping head. Scott Spray, the bassist, who wrote music for HBO’s Sex and The City, and has played with Winter’s brother Edgar, maintains vigilant eye contact with Nelson, maintaining a cool demeanor even as the 12 bar-blue repertoire demands severe tempo shifts.
After opening with the lush instrumental “Paul Nelson’s Jam”, the band burst into the blues shuffle, “Hideway”, an old Freddie King song with a sharp, careening turn-around and a Peter Gunn-like surprise riff. Winter, seated on the wooden stage and sandwiched between Nelson and Spray, looked every bit the legend. The blues-boogie “Sugar-Coated Love” followed. Winter’s voice still maintains a mellow timbre and his comfort on stage is obvious. Nelson’s fingers scurry across his guitar’s upper register with the tenacity of dehydrated bumblebees attacking a half-eaten watermelon on a picnic bench. The applause is thunderous. “She Likes to Boogie Real Low” commands the room. The honky-tonk “Miss Ann” encourages Spray to mug the lyrics and this emo-shuffle with the irresistible hook, “oh, oh, oh, Miss Ann, you’re doin’ something no-one can, believin’ and deceivin’, it’s drivin’ me to grievin’ now,” gets the crowd moving.
“Blackjack” -- a tribute to Ray Charles -- underscores Winter’s luxurious vocals. The easy-going simplicity and pulse harkens to Mississippi Delta classics. Winter sings, “ hey hey hey, I’m a lucky guy, how lucky can a man be?” as Liuzzi’s Gretsch kit emits tumultuous rolls. “The older I get,” Winter sings honestly, “I’m gonna have some fun, hey, hey, hey.” Liuzzi joins in, singing, “went to the river to jump in, my baby showed up and said, I will tell you when,” in a booming voice reminiscent of iconic Chicago blues-man Howlin’ Wolf in Freddy King’s “ Tore Down”. It’s a good teaser for the explosive “Lone Wolf”, which follows and was written especially for Winter by songwriter and record producer Tom Hambridge.
The slow-simmered, but deep-fried, “Red House” (Jimi Hendrix) raised the temperature as Winter formed thirds and fourths that he ruthlessly rammed down the neck as he dreamily sang, “Well, there’s a red house over yonder, that’s where my baby stays / Lord, there’s a red house over yonder, oh, that’s where my baby stays / I ain’t been home to see my baby in ninety-nine and one half days.” Winter “studied” the blues by playing every record he could get his hands on and was deeply moved by the recordings of Muddy Water, Robert Johnson, Little Walter, and B.B. King. This is evident as he sings with an unpretentious calm.
“Boney Maroney”’s contagious and, judging by the fans’ moving lips, familiar lyrics (“I love her, she loves me”), coupled with Spray’s flaming-hot bass line and Liuzzi’s punch created some vintage levity. The closer, the much-covered Stones hit, Booby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” primed the rock ‘n’ roll pump that this evening of traditional blues had deliberately upstaged.
Though the crowd begged for “Mean Town Blues”, the 90-minute set ended here. But their applause and whoops brought the band out again for Winter’s acclaimed slide guitar work. After being handed his ’63 Gibson Firebird V, Winter maneuvered the silver iconic slide on “Mojo Boogie” and then emblazoned it once more for the much awaited, second encore, “Highway 61”. An action that looked like a slide glissando entertained those lucky enough to catch a good glimpse and the screeching shrill in Winter’s deft hands derailed anyone who imagined the blues a hillbilly cousin to rock ‘n’ roll.
After the show, down by the tour van, a line had formed. A few happy people walked away with their guitars bearing Winter’s signature, another carried a signed album. Scott Baudin, from Bloomingdale, Illinois, clutched a water bottle he snagged from the stage emblazoned with Winter’s felt-tipped signature. Explaining why seeing Winter was so vital, Baudin stated: “You take for granted they’re here all the time. Willie Dixon -- the people that were here all the time. Now they’re gone. I’m committed to trying to see all the blues guys that are still around.” Baudin was just about the last man standing in the dimly lit suburban parking lot. He quickly pulled out the treasures he had gathered from the night -- a guitar pick, a drum stick, a signed, glossy of the band and of course, the famed, “never to be handled again” bottle. “I couldn’t have walked away a better man tonight. Johnny Winter’s lips touched this bottle,” he said. “I got the bottle he touched.”