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Music Review: Johnny Winter – Woodstock Experience

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The Woodstock Experience is a genius idea. Combining an artist's studio album and their Woodstock performance, along with a poster in nice little box set makes for one sweet package. There are five of these sets in total, (Santana, Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jefferson Airplane).

For me, Johnny Winter’s is the best of the group. The only downside to the whole concept is most of the acts performing at Woodstock were terribly recorded. Unfortunately, only one song was recorded for many of the bands, such as Ten Years After. You could argue that some groups whose shows were perfectly recorded are so big, like The Who and The Band, their performances weren't released for contractual reasons.

In the case of Johnny Winter it's really a shame that his blues set was not appreciated at the time and was not given more prominence in original Woodstock film. Most folks would be surprised to hear that Johnny Winter even played at Woodstock. Paul Butterfield's set definitely did not show his band at its peak; Ten Years After’s set was plagued by recording equipment gone haywire.

The film crew only managed to get its cameras rolling in time for "I’m Going Home," the last song of the set. Canned Heat's contribution was barely released at all, but Joan Baez's performance was perfectly recorded. Oh the cruelty.

Johnny Winter, for me. is the king of Texas blues. He is so deeply rooted in the genre, that for his Woodstock set, he was allowed to step out of his studio shoes without having to stick with songs from his solo album, and it works wonderfully in this series. You don't end up with two versions of the same material, unlike Carlos Santana's Woodstock Experience set. Both discs are completely different experiences, although both include mostly familiar covers of blues greats such as Robert Johnson, and J.B. Lenoir. Johnny’s brother Edgar, even more unknown then Johnny at the time, comes on to play three songs near the end with "I Can't Stand It," "Tobacco Road," and "Tell the Truth."

Winters' only two originals in the live set “Leland Mississippi Blues,” and “Mean Town Blues,” show that there are few performers who understand the blues better then Johnny, and why among musicians he is so highly respected. His ten minute version of the multi-genre standard “Tobacco Road,” puts him at the top of the list of those who have covered it like the Animals, the Blues Magoos, and Spooky Tooth. Winter closes off the set with "Johnny B. Goode," and once again nails it perfectly, leaving the album with a high energy feeling.

The studio album is equally as amazing, if not better then the live performance, and only lacks the applause. Everything from the full band’s high energy "I’m Yours and I’m Hers," to the more subtle slide guitar on "Dallas," his three originals are once again amazing, and fit in perfectly with the six covers.

After the opening cut "I’m Your and I’m Hers," comes a typical slow blues song, with fast guitar playing, "Be Careful With a Fool," not the most impressive song on the whole album. However, it does show off Johnny’s amazing guitar skills, as does the more sparse "Dallas," with its really fine slide work.Winter is as good acoustic as he is electric, and it’s one of the highlights of the album. His gruff voice actually works better a lot of ways with these acoustic songs. Next comes "Mean Mistreater" originally titled "Mean Mistreatin’" by Jimmie Gordon, which features some really nice harmonica work from Big Walter Horton which reminds me a lot of Paul Butterfield’s playing on his first two albums. Johnny deftly keeps his guitar playing at a minimum and lets the harmonica power this one.

Winter’s last original song is “Leland Mississippi Blues,” the only song to appear on both the studio album, and the in the live Woodstock performance. Not much to say here, except that the live version outshines this track, and I have a feeling that if all of these songs on the studio album were on the live disc, the result would be the same.

Next up, is a song covered by every band from the Allman Brothers Band to the Grateful Dead: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” Johnny switches very nicely on this album, from electric to acoustic guitar, something few artists can accomplish with equal dexterity; Clapton and Stills come to mind as the exceptions. Robert Johnson’s "When You Got a Good Friend," is another bare acoustic recording, emulating the original amazingly, and far superior to the version by the aforementioned Clapton. Then we are rewarded with “I’ll Drown in My Tears,” a slow soulful blues, featuring Edgar Winter on horns. It might be surprising to hear Johnny doing a song like this, but it works just as well as his most raucous material. Finally “Back Door Friend,” delivers some of the rawest, nattiest Texas blues you can find. The sound quality isn’t great by any standard on this song, but it doesn’t matter…..it doesn’t need to be.

In the end, this compilation shows Johnny at his best, with an earth-shaking live performance, and a equally inspiring solo album. The live disc is one of the best performances at Woodstock, and should be mentioned alongside albums like Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, A Long Time Comin’, and Super Session as one of the best blues albums recorded. Though not as good as his next album Second Winter, his first solo effort makes this set the best in the entire Woodstock Experience series. Yes, better then Santana. I give this five out of five stars.

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