Music

Johnny Winter: True to the Blues, the Johnny Winter Story

Winter took his axe to newly discovered worlds of feedback and kept on whacking.


Johnny Winter

True to the Blues, the Johnny Winter Story

Label: Columbia/Legacy
US Release Date: 2014-02-23
UK Release Date: 2014-02-24
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image