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Music Review: Johnny Winter – Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience

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When we look at the names of the acts who were performing at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969 we see them as we know them today. To us Santana, Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and others are established stars who headline festivals all the time. However this was forty years ago, and even the most established star had to have his or her early career when they weren't well known. According to the liner notes accompanying the Legacy Recordings release, Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience, the producers of the Woodstock festival had been very deliberate about booking bands who were relatively unknown at the time to mix with the established groups.

One of those unknowns was the young man from Mississippi Johnny Winter who had only just released his first album, Johnny Winter, earlier that year. Now if you had asked me if Winter had played at Woodstock, I would have said no way, because up to now there has been no record of his having appeared on stage at the festival. He hadn't been on either of the albums, or any version of the movie, released. So the Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience package represents the first time his eight song performance from August 17, 1969 has been heard. As with all the other packages of this type being released the manufactures have also included a copy of the album he had released earlier in the year, the above mentioned Johnny Winter, and a poster made from a photo taken during his concert.

Now I have to admit to never having really listened to Winter's music before, as I had wrongly assumed it was along the lines of so many other rock power trios, or even his brother Edgar's power pop. I hadn't known that Johnny has always considered himself a blues player and nothing else. So for the first time I actually sat down and listened to his music and discovered that although he doesn't play a type of music that I would listen to everyday, what he does play is some really well executed electric blues.

It's pretty normal today for there to be white electric blues players, but in the late sixties it was nowhere near as common, especially for young men from Mississippi, to want to play the blues. However, as teenagers Johnny and his brother Edgar had hung out in the black bars and catch performances by people like Muddy Waters and BB King. He actually began his performance career on the ukulele at the age of ten on a children's television show and switched to guitar when he was a teenager. He appeared on two recordings prior to his own release; a forty-five by Roy Head and The Traits and another album called The Progressive Blues Experiment

So when he appeared at Woodstock, although he had only released one recording under his own name, he had accumulated far more musical experience than most twenty-five year olds could hope (he was born on Feb.23, 1944) and it shows. Unlike many others appearing at the festival who simply played the music from their most recently released recordings, Winter's set included only one song from his album, "Leland Mississippi Blues". Aside from it the other seven songs were either blues tunes like "Tobacco Road" and "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now" or the early rock and roll classic "Johnny B Goode". He was even confident enough in his own abilities that he brought his brother Edgar out half-way through the set to jam with them on keyboards and saxophone.

Like I said earlier the music he played isn't the kind of stuff that I'm liable to listen to on a regular basis, but it's played extremely well. In fact the most impressive thing about his music in this set is that it doesn't fall into any of the usual electric blues/power trio cliches. True it's still hard and driving, but it has far more elements of blues music than I had expected. I had thought it would be all hard rock noise and solos, instead it was rough hewn and strong electric blues which managed to retain a good deal of the emotional depth that so many players in this genre let fall by the wayside in their pursuit of power and speed.

The other surprising thing about Winter is the quality of his voice. Unlike far too many others, who seem to consider vocals a matter of muttering and growling incomprehensibly into the microphone, he paid attention to how he sang. His voice might not be the best in the world in terms of range and body, but he showed that he knew how to make the best possible use of it. In fact, its roughness and ragged edges were perfectly suited to his musical style, as it matched his guitar's strong and abrasive emotional honesty.

The other great thing about Johnny Winter's performance on the live disc is how obvious it is that he has a great sense of humour and doesn't take himself anywhere near as seriously as other guitar slingers do. There's something about his choice of performing "Johnny B Goode", and the way he sings it in an almost self-mocking tone, that's like he's dropping the audience a giant wink to let them know it's all in good fun. In fact, more than anything else, what makes his music so good is it's obvious how much fun he is having and how much he loves what he is doing. He knows that this music isn't about to change the world, but it's what he loves doing and he has a great time doing it. It's a combination that is hard to resist.

Now a days white electric blues players are a dime a dozen and a great many of them are about that original in their playing. Johnny Winter may not be the most innovative of players, or even the best electric blues guitar player to come down the pipe, but he brings to his playing the passion and joy of playing that so many other seem to be lacking. Listening to the live tracks from his Woodstock appearance on Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience really make that obvious, and it can't help but bring a smile to your lips.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • doug

    An album so nice the artist name appears twice. How odd