Whenever famed rock and blues guitarist Johnny Winter, 67, takes the stage at this point in his career, it is with the aura of a legend–his own–surrounding him.
With his shock of long white hair and his black cowboy hat and numerous tattoos, Winter still cuts a striking figure, and last Friday night at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in Manhattan, there was a palpable sense of anticipation as Winter’s band, led by second guitarist Paul Nelson, cranked out an instrumental intro of rocking blues while Winter, now physically frail and a bit stooped in posture, made his way out to the center of the stage. Once there, he sat down in a chair and proceeded, like some albino Buddha, to mesmerize his standing-room-only throng of disciples for the next hour-and-a-half.
Winter, of course, started out playing electric blues in his native Texas, before moving on to arena-filling, worldwide rock and roll stardom in the early to mid-1970s (though he never totally left the blues behind), before moving back fully into the blues genre in the 1980s, where he has since remained. But while this show was ostensibly to celebrate a new album, Roots (just released on Megaforce records), which deals mostly in the blues staples that first influenced the Texas guitar slinger, the Johnny Winter who played at B.B. King’s was not a man who has forsaken the blazing rock and roll which made him famous.
In fact, Winter and his band played with a feverish intensity that made this rock scribe, who has seen this legend play live approximately 16 times since the mid-1970s, take a mental trip back in time to the period of 1978’s White, Hot and Blue album, a transitional record which found Winter rocking up some blues standards like “Messin’ With The Kid” and “Divin’ Duck.”
Starting out as he often does now with an instrumental, Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” which serves to limber up the fingers, Winter warmed to his task throughout the evening. And by the set’s fourth song, “Good Morning Little School Girl” (which was a highlight of Winter’s biggest selling “rock” period LP, the sizzling classic Johnny Winter And Live), it was like the 1970s had never left, as the band turned up the volume and laid down a ferocious groove, highlighted as always by Winter’s still-nimble and always fiery fretwork.
The blues, of course, was present and welcome: a mid-set highlight was a cover of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack,” the tale of a man who gambles and loses it all. Winter’s gruff vocals are not quite as powerful as they once were, but he sounded much stronger than on the recorded version of the same song found on his Live in NYC ’97 release. Perhaps his improved health — Winter has finally gotten free of all drugs, including methadone — has helped in this area. Also, the song’s slower tempo allowed Winter to really dig deep on the guitar, his soloing revealing the very essence of blues power.
Other highlights included a powerful rendition of “Got My Mojo Workin’” (first made famous by Muddy Waters) and sizzling rock takes on “Lone Wolf” and “Boney Maroney” (a fave from Winter’s 1974 Saints and Sinners album). A jammy version of “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” thrillingly turned into a roaring take on “Gimme Shelter” — no Johnny Winter show is complete without a nod to the Rolling Stones. Winter was then sufficiently moved to get off of his chair for a raunchy workout on “It’s All Over Now,” for which he was joined by guitarist Jimmy Vivino.
But Winter saved the very best for last, as the encores saw him break out his trusty Gibson Firebird for some earth-shaking slide guitar on Elmore James’ blues classic, “Dust My Broom,” earning him a standing ovation. He followed up with his always-incredible slide-blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” a number that stole the show at Dylan’s 50th Birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in 1992. It was just as scorching here, as Winter and his ace band sent the crowd home with dazed but happy smiles.
Johnny Winter is indeed an icon and a legend, but as this concert proved, he’s also very much still alive and well.
3.Sugar Coated Love
4.She Likes To Boogie Real Low
5.Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
6.Got My Mojo Working
10.Don’t Take Advantage of Me
12.It’s All Over Now
13.Dust My Broom
14.Highway 61 Revisited
—Johnny “Gutter” Walker
—photo by Stephanie Walker