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Music Review: Johnny Winter – The Woodstock Experience

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This summer marks the 40th Anniversary of 1969's historic Woodstock Music And Arts Festival. As part of the celebration, Sony/Legacy Recordings is releasing a limited edition series of deluxe, double disc recordings by five of the artists whose performances at Woodstock changed the world.

Dubbed The Woodstock Experience, each double-CD set pairs a classic 1969 album from the featured artist, along with their full festival performance. All of the concert recordings — by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Sly And The Family Stone, and Santana — appear on these CDs in their entirety for the first time ever. All are packaged in eco-friendly sleeves, that include a mini-version of the original album cover and a 16 X 20 inch double-sided fold-out poster. With this series, which we are also calling The Woodstock Experience, Blogcritics will be reviewing each of these commemorative sets.

Johnny Winter was one of the lesser-known acts chosen to perform at the time promoters were putting together the lineup for Woodstock back in 1969. At the time, the Texas blues guitarist was primarily known for two things — being an albino, and the fairly strong buzz he had been generating largely via word of mouth from music critics and scenesters.

Johnny Winter of course eventually went on to much bigger and better things. He took his rightful place amongst the upper-tier of the best regarded rock guitarists, and by the seventies — first with his group Johnny Winter And, and later with albums like Still Alive And Well — he was also headlining arenas. Brother Edgar Winter would also ride Johnny's coattails to success with his own hits "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride."

Reportedly in ill health these days, Johnny Winter nonetheless still regularly gets out there to play shows. But for the past decade or so, he's retreated from the bright lights of rock stardom to pursue a lower profile as more of a blues purist.

In 1969 though, Johnny was quite the sight to see with his flowing white hair, and some equally white-hot blues/rock guitar slinging to match. It's easy to forget that Johnny Winter even played at the Woodstock festival today though. He wasn't in the original movie, although he does show up on the bonus disc of the recently released Woodstock 40th Anniversary DVD box.

As part of the Woodstock Experience discs being released by Sony/Legacy on Tuesday, Johnny Winter's complete set at the legendary 1969 festival is paired on a double-disc with the Texas guitarist's 1969 debut album for Columbia. As with the other Woodstock Experience packages, there are no bonus tracks or extras on the Johnny Winter album, although the original album art is recreated in loving detail, right down to the red Columbia logo on the disc itself.

Listening to Winter's Woodstock set, you can almost imagine how much bigger he might have been had the performance footage been included back when the documentary was first released. If anything, Winter's blues-based, guitar-heavy rock immediately reminds you of Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, who became huge stars after their own performance of "I'm Going Home" in the movie.

Backed by the standard rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums, Winter's guitar — and especially his slide playing — does most of the talking here on blues workouts like "Mean Town Blues" and "Leland Missisippi Blues," a standout track from his debut album. Nothing too fancy here — just a shit-hot blues guitar player backed by a tight-ass little blues band.

Johnny is joined by his brother Edgar on sax and piano for the last several songs of the set, including "I Can't Stand It" and a ten-minute version of "Tobacco Road." The latter song would become a staple of Edgar's own concerts in the seventies, particularly on his live double album Roadwork, with his band White Trash.

In this performance recorded so many years prior, Edgar is already beginning to work out the trademark scream and sax solos he would later make famous on the version still to come. Hearing it here in a more embryonic stage with brother Johnny is one of the true delights of this set. Edgar's prolonged screams towards the end still produce chills even now.

Edgar sticks around for "Tell The Truth," and wisely turns the spotlight back to brother Johnny who turns in a lightning-fast guitar solo. This soon makes way for some nice scat singing, and more of those trademark screams by Edgar. Although the new DVD box does finally include Johnny Winter, I'd loved to have seen this stuff included as well. Maybe next time (in ten or so more years). The band closes out the set with a barn-storming "Johnny B. Goode" — a song which Johnny Winter would make a trademark of his for years to come.

The pairing of the Woodstock set with Johnny Winter's self-titled 1969 debut album here points out the two sides of this multi-talented guitarist. Where the Woodstock set is pretty much all rock 'n' roll fireworks — especially during the parts with Edgar — the album is comparatively lower key.

Not that the album doesn't have any number of explosive guitar solos — because it most certainly does. From the opening track "I'm Yours And I'm Hers," Winter breaks out the slide and gets right down to business. But where the live show accents the rock, this album is clearly focused on the blues — and on tracks like "Be Careful With A Fool," Winter shows he can be just as tasty in the studio as he is flashy on the concert stage.

It's an audacious debut record which at the time signaled the arrival of a major new talent. Johnny Winter puts on a blues-rock guitar clinic here. However, he never strays too far from the blues in doing so.

On the song "Dallas" he shows himself to be as comfortable with the Delta style of Lightnin' Hopkins as he is with the Chicago blues of the following song, a harmonica accentuated version of "Mean Mistreater." Here, even the recording itself sounds as appropriately muddy as, well, you know…

Truth be told, it's probably been something like twenty years since I listened to Johnny Winter's first record, and I'd almost forgotten how great this album really is. Thanks to Legacy Recordings for the reminder — not to mention the bonus treat of hearing the complete Woodstock set for the first time.

This set, along with the rest of the Woodstock Experience packages arrive both digitally and in stores on Tuesday June 30.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.