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.