Depending on the artist’s intentions, box sets can serve many different purposes. One of the biggest sellers of all time was Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975-85, which took five albums to do justice to his legendary reputation on stage. These sets can also serve as outlets for previously unreleased material, such as Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series. The sets that I like the best are the ones that tell the story of a musician’s career, which is exactly what Johnny Winter’s new True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story does.
The four-CD set collects material from 1968 to 2011, and is set for release on February 25, 2014. The date is not at all arbitrary, as it falls two days after Winter’s 70th birthday, on February 23. Long time fans will certainly cherish it, not only for the music, but for the beautiful 100-page book that is included as well. True to the Blues is being issued by Columbia/Legacy Recordings, so the majority of the music comes from the albums he recorded for Columbia and their affiliated labels such as Blue Sky.
First of all, I should admit that before listening to this collection, my knowledge of Winter’s music was pretty limited. I was familiar with him, but far from an expert. In listening to the 56 tracks on True to the Blues, I learned a lot. I would still not call myself an expert, but at least I have an idea of what he is all about now. And as the title implies, he is all about the blues.
Winter’s first album was The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968), and the first song on the set “Bad Luck and Trouble” sounds as old as the hills. It is the sound of Winter’s National Steel Guitar that does it, because the song sounds as if it were some long lost 78 recorded around 1926.
In listening to the set, one thing becomes abundantly clear, that the stage was Winter’s friend. “It’s My Own Fault” was recorded live at the Fillmore East in 1968, but not released until 2003. It is a shame that the track stayed in the vault so long, because it is a killer. The nearly 11-minute tune also features Mike Bloomfield on guitar, and Al Kooper playing organ, along with some lesser-known names. Winter’s playing, and vocals are simply incredible on this track.
Most people did not hear of Winter until his Columbia Records debut Johnny Winter (1969), as The Progressive Blues Experiment was released by the small Texas label Sonobeat. Columbia got behind him in a big way, and the set features four of album’s nine songs. The killer is “Mean Mistreater,” on which he is joined by blues heroes Willie Dixon and Walter “Shakey” Horton.
The guy was certainly prolific that year, as 1969 also saw the release of Second Winter, which was a “three-sided” album. In an interesting marketing gimmick, Columbia issued Second Winter as a double, with three sides of music, and the fourth side blank. True to the Blues features four songs from the record, including Winter’s version of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” His cover has always been touted as one of the best interpretations of Dylan, but I do not really get it. The live version on the fourth disc is pretty good, but I could live without the studio one.
As I worked my way through the box, I began to realize how much cross-pollination was going on between Winter and his brother Edgar, and their friends. The second CD could be subtitled “The Derringer Disc,” as Rick Derringer is on every track. I again show my ignorance here, but I had no idea that Derringer’s big hit “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” was first recorded by Winter on his fourth Johnny Winter And (1970) LP. This version has nowhere near the fire that the hit did, and is really just a curio.
One of the strange truths about albums in the early ‘70s was that the longest songs were generally the best songs. This holds true for the two live cuts on the second disc, which have a combined time of close to a half hour. “It’s My Own Fault” (10:57) and “Mean Town Blues” (18:07) both feature some absolutely smoking guitar from Winter.
Listening to the third CD of the set is a little sad, especially the first nine songs. There are three from his fifth studio recording Still Alive and Well (1973), three from number six Saints and Sinners (1974) and three from John Dawson Winter III (1974). These are by the numbers blues cuts, with very little fire. Even worse, there are obvious commercial touches that you just know the label had insisted on. My guess is that Winter’s “Self Destructive Blues” is more than just a catchy self-penned song title. There is one gem here though, and that is “I Done Got Over It,” which was recorded live with Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and “Pinetop” Perkins, among others.
The generic studio blues continues on through the first six tracks of the fourth disc, which features three songs apiece from White, Hot & Blue (1978), and Raisin’ Cain (1980). There may well be people out there who find this material interesting, but I have to be honest and say that it sounds as if Winter is just going through the motions. The energy dramatically improves on “Don’t Take Advantage of Me,” which is the seventh cut on the disc. It appears that Winter was dropped from the big leagues, as this tune is from Guitar Slinger (1984), on Alligator Records.
I can only speculate, but on the final nine tracks of the box, it seems that Winter may have conquered his self destructive blues. The songs from his Alligator albums especially are all top notch. This set also features great cuts from later efforts on the Virgin and Megaforce labels as well. Again, it is clear that Winter had gotten his mojo back sometime in the early ‘80s, and has kept it going ever since. His live “Highway 61” from the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert is a monster, especially compared to the studio take.
Sometimes a box set may tell a bigger story than the participants really want it to, and that might be the case with True to the Blues. There is a pattern to these things that I have found to be almost inevitable. Discs two and three are the only ones anyone ever plays. That is because the first disc usually contains the artist’s first tentative steps, and the fourth documents the almost inevitable decline. On True to the Blues though, discs one and four are the strongest, without question.
As a caveat, I must say that this is a critical opinion of the four discs as they stand up to each other. In a broader sense, all 56 songs are well worth hearing and owning, because there are elements to each that do stand out. It would just be too unwieldy to review each and every track, which is why I picked out a few for special mention.
Unless you are even older than me, it is unlikely you have heard much of Winter’s music on the radio. He is a major artist, and one that every serious music fan should at least be familiar with. True to the Blues does a fantastic job of telling his story, warts and all.