I don’t recall how many times I saw Johnny Winter and his brother Edgar over the years. The most memorable concert of them all has to be the one I saw in late 2012 when a conspicuously ill Magic Slim was the opening act. Within a few months, Slim left us. That passing was no surprise, but Winter’s death on July 16, 2014 plunged many fans into unexpected mourning.
So it was hard for me to avoid a sense of deep sadness when I got my copy of Winter’s Step Back, knowing it would be the final studio album from the Texas guitar master I’d ever play. But, in short order, the vibrancy, energy, and variety of what I heard blew all my preconceived blues away. Instead, I was taken back in time as Step Back is a collection of covers where Winter repeated the same formula of his 2011 Roots where Winter and a cast of all-star friends offered their takes on some memorable rock and blues classics. In a very real sense, Roots and Step Back, both produced by guitarist Paul Nelson, are appropriate full-circle collaborations where Winter et al show their affection for the music that inspired and influenced them all those years ago.
From the get-go, Winter seemed to want his listeners to know Step Back would be full of surprises. For example, the opener, Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” isn’t your typical Winter guitar workout. Instead, he is singing, not shouting, with a full brass band backed by singers evoking the memory of the Raelettes. Then, as if to reassure us that the album will have a heavy dose of the sho-nuff blues, Johnny shares vocal duties with Ben Harper on Elmore James’ “Can’t Hold Out (Talk to Me Baby),” where Winter is certainly channeling the driving style of that particular blues pioneer.
Much of the variety of the program is due to the musical approaches of the guests. It’s very evident all hands on deck are out to have an upbeat good time. The smoothness of Magic Sam’s “Don’t Want No Woman,” for example, comes from the guitar of Eric Clapton, a longtime Winter bud. (That song, by the way, was a staple of Texas blues bands in the late ’70s/early ’80s, perhaps most notably by the first line-up of Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets.) Then, producer and guitarist Paul Nelson contributes to a close reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” with a jaunting walking bass line. For a change of pace, Winter goes rockabilly along with Brian Setzer on Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp,” a kicking instrumental punctuated by horn fanfares.
Shifting gears again, it’s no surprise the new “Where Can You Be” sounds very much like ZZ Top since Billy Gibbons both sings and adds his distinctive guitar style to the jam. To do Little Walter’s “My Babe” justice, you need a hot harp player, and in this case that’s Jason Ricci. Want more guitar gods to share the stage with Johnny? OK, Winter and Joe Bonamassa (Black Country Communion) capture the flavor of B.B. King’s Memphis-style “Sweet Sixteen.” Winter and Mountain’s Leslie West belt out a quick run-through of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry joins in on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand,” an example of what Texas blues was all about before Winter’s own generation picked up the torch.
Then, without a famous partner, Winter remembers Bo Diddley with “Who Do You Love” and does a solo acoustic version of Son House’s “Death Letter,” showing off his bottleneck chops one last time. Finally, Winter returns to the brassy sound of “Unchain My Heart” with Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday,” this time with the heavy piano presence of Dr. John.
All this music and all those big names not enough to sell you on Step Back? Well, each CD also comes with a free limited edition guitar pick in one of five colors chosen by Johnny. (Mine is gray.) A special white mother of pearl pick is limited to 5,000 copies. Now, there’s a nifty little bonus.
Earlier this year, we got the Legacy True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story box set, which was excellent for its retrospective of his Columbia Records days, but less so for representing his work on other labels like Alligator and MCA. Perhaps that’s a compilation for another company to contemplate. Who knows how many live concert tapes are in the vaults worthy of general release. Whatever the future might hold, the two releases from 2014, the box set and Step Back, are as hot as Winter ever got. Get yours while the good times roll and the cool picks last. Amen.
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