I hadn’t seen Johnny Winter in almost twenty years before I caught his act last Tuesday at BB King’s in New York City. As a teenager, I saw him on several occasions: twice at the Warner Theatre in DC, once at the legendary and sadly-demolished Bayou in DC, another time at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and another at Centre Stage in Atlanta, Georgia. Johnny’s self-titled Columbia LP made a huge impression on me as a young teen and Johnny has essentially remained my favorite living, touring electric blues guitarist from then until this day, though B.B. King probably shares this distinction. Johnny’s picking may not be as consistently brilliant and dexterous as it once was, but there’s a glorious abrasiveness to both his singing and playing that I’ve always loved. It’s also fascinating to watch his right-hand thumbpick-and-fingers technique used on all those fast runs and I wonder how many aspiring electric blues guitarists even attempt this intimidating method these days.
Having heard about Johnny’s recent health problems and occasional erratic performances, I wasn’t sure what to expect when the band hit the stage and he was led out to his chair. One thing I noticed right off the bat: he was still as frightfully loud and rockin’ as he was twenty years ago, despite his frailer condition and seemingly poorer eyesight. It took him around 20 minutes to loosen up his fingers and get his timing right, but once that happened, he sounded fine, particularly while playing slide on his trademark Gibson Firebird--a better sounding guitar than the Erlewine Laser, in my opinion. I had read somewhere that Johnny plays mostly blues these days, but half of the setlist was straight-up rock and roll. Who spread this rumor about Johnny sticking to blues--someone who doesn’t recognize Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, The Rolling Stones, and Dylan?
An early highlight for me was hearing “Good Morning Little School Girl” played in the familiar arrangement found on the self-titled Columbia record, but it was Johnny’s slide playing toward the end of the show that really gave me my money’s worth. Sure, some of his breaks were better executed than others, but he absolutely nailed the closer "Highway 61 Revisited," having stood up, with some difficulty, to give it his all. The moments when he was all-out wailing on the slide guitar were easily the highlights of the performance and I’m sure I would have said the same thing reflecting on the shows I saw as a teenager.
Immediately after the show ended, I lined up by the stage door and after about five minutes was invited into Johnny’s dressing room along with maybe seven other people. Johnny was sitting behind a small table without a pen and looking rather tense. I handed him the two LPs you see pictured above, along with the Sharpie I fortunately brought along. Very slowly and somewhat unsteadily, he signed both records, choosing a particularly odd signature placement on Saints and Sinners--right across his face! I don't think he could see the records that well and he basically just aimed for a central lightly-colored area on each of the covers.
During my interaction with Johnny, there really wasn’t any opportunity to have any kind of meaningful exchange. He understandably wasn’t very relaxed and the scene in the dressing room was very cramped with all of the band members sharing the space and with a few other fans lined up behind me, including one exuberant fan telling everyone in earshot that he saw Johnny perform with Muddy Waters in 1981 when he was sixteen. I basically just thanked Johnny for signing my records and told him he could keep my Sharpie so he could continue to use it. I also mentioned that I’d been catching his shows for over twenty years and that I was glad he was still touring.
This signed Bill Harrell record was a one dollar yard sale find and it offers a fine opportunity to hear Mike Auldridge (featured in a lengthy post last week) in a more traditional bluegrass setting. For those who don’t know the music of the late Bill Harrell, he’s similar to Mac Wiseman both in terms of his relaxed singing style and his fondness for traditional mountain ballads. Though both singers have mellow voices, they played their share of hard driving bluegrass, particularly during the early part of their careers--Bill with Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-ups and Mac with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Both artists are also excellent rhythm guitar players.
You’ll notice on the cover that Bill is playing an Ovation guitar, which is a rather unusual choice for this style of music, though a few other bluegrass performers used Ovations in the late 1970s, most notably Tony Rice. Note that Bill is seated, yet is still using a guitar strap. This is because the round back of the guitar would cause it to slide down on his lap if he wasn’t using a strap to hold the guitar in place.
Along with Buzz Busby and the Country Gentlemen, Bill Harrell was one of the pioneers of the Washington, DC bluegrass scene. All of his albums are enjoyable and worth tracking down.
Every year around this time I remember how much I miss seeing the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere, back when Mike Auldridge and the late John Duffey were in the band and back when the Birchmere was in a smaller building a few doors down from its current location. Maybe it’s because Duffey passed away in the month of December or maybe it’s because the Seldom Scene’s anniversary falls in November each year (the band celebrated its 40th last month) or maybe it’s all those New Year’s Eve shows the band used to play at the Birchmere. Whatever the case, it seemed appropriate that I post this Mike Auldridge record that he signed for me at the Birchmere in the late 80s when the band was between sets of one of their regular Thursday night appearances. For anyone who doesn't know: Mike was the Dobro player in the Seldom Scene from the band's inception in 1971 until 1995 when he left to form a new band called Chesapeake.
After the first set, Mike joined a few friends at a nearby table and I remember feeling a little nervous when I approached him—after all, I was a 17 year old kid out on a school night, likely interrupting the conversation of old friends. Mike was very friendly and happy to oblige, scribbling his giant sloppy signature down the right side of my LP. In the late 80s and early 90s, I probably saw about twenty Thursday night Seldom Scene shows and Mike was the only person I ever approached, though I did have a chance encounter with John Duffey in front of the Arlington County Public Library.
At that time in my life and throughout my college years, the Birchmere was my favorite place to go and I was sad to see it move to the larger building. Though I have heard some great music in the current venue, I miss the intimacy and charm of the old place. There was the man with the long white beard who guarded the door, took your ten-dollar cover, and used his foreboding stare to discourage talking during the performances. There was the used record store downstairs, the pull-knob cigarette machine, the beautiful chandelier to the right of the stage, the worn out swinging doors of the men’s restroom that inevitably slammed into you as you entered. The place was so quiet and respectful during the Seldom Scene's performances that you could hear water spraying dishes in the kitchen during the quieter moments of a song.
On one particularly memorable evening Doc Watson was an unbilled mystery surprise guest (Can you imagine them doing that now?) and Mike shared the stage with him for several songs including “Treasures Untold,” which they had recently recorded together. I remember this well, as it’s the only time I’ve heard Doc play live with Dobro accompaniment. On other nights, Tony Rice would pop up on stage during the Scene’s set and sing “Old Train” or play a jawdroppingly fast “John Hardy.” These occasions were the only times I‘ve heard Tony sing in live performance, as dysphonia silenced his voice shortly thereafter.
Not surprisingly, the Seldom Scene member who made the biggest impression on me was mandolin player and high tenor vocalist John Duffey. I remember the hair sticking up on the back of my neck the first time I heard him sing “Bringing Mary Home.” I remember doubling over in laughter as he donned star-shaped sunglasses during a spirited rendition of “Lay Down Sally.” But mostly, I remember silently and attentively watching him on stage; in particular, I loved to watch him take mandolin breaks. Often, he would stare at his fingers in astonishment as if he couldn’t believe how fast they were moving. Then, as soon as he finished, he would fling his mandolin around his back and look out at the crowd as if to say “how’d he do all that?”
Mike always impressed me too, because, more than anyone in the band, he just exuded music. Duffey could sound a little unrehearsed and slightly out of tune, but he had so much soul and charisma that it didn't matter. In contrast, Mike seemed more refined and smooth. His playing was as immaculate as his personal appearance—as if he had been practicing six hours a day for the entire week leading up to the gig, which I'm sure was the case. He also seemed to really enjoy himself on stage and his ever-present smile was infectious and uplifting. During each Thursday night appearance, Mike was featured on instrumentals such as "Pickaway," "Panhandle Country," and his wonderful arrangement of Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy." I remember requesting that the band play another instrumental "Appalachian Rain," mainly so I could hear Auldridge's Dobro break and on one such occasion, this number, played at my request, got the biggest applause of any song played that evening.
It’s for all these reasons that this signed Mike Auldridge record has sentimental value, even if it isn’t his most representative album or even one of the many solo Auldridge records that feature other original members of the Seldom Scene.
During that same summer trip to Southwestern Virginia (see the Ralph Stanley entry), John and I journeyed into Eastern Kentucky to see the birthplace of Loretta Lynn. Loretta’s brother Herman gives $5 tours of Loretta’s childhood home, though he was not available on the date we arrived and we had to settle for a few pictures taken from the road. A week later, we saw Ms. Lynn perform at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Front Royal, Virginia. I had brought my Fist City LP cover with me, though she didn’t sign any autographs after the show--I don’t think she was feeling that well.
Still wanting to get an LP signed and not knowing whether I would get it back or not, I decided to mail Loretta the cover to an album I could stand losing--I didn’t want to risk mailing my pristine Fist City cover, my favorite album of hers. The cover came back signed, though, as you can see from the picture, the marker was very dry. Ultimately, I’m still not satisfied with this autograph and may try again.
Remember that Les Paul: He Changed the Music television special that aired in the late 1980s – the one where Eddie Van Halen awkwardly kisses Les Paul on the cheek? I remember hearing that the one person Les Paul requested to perform at that tribute concert was Danny Gatton, but, at the last minute, Gatton was bumped by the network for rock star Eddie Van Halen. Les Paul had never even heard of Eddie Van Halen.
Anyone who has ever listened to Danny Gatton knows he’s one of the greatest electric guitar players who ever lived—if not the greatest. I only got to see Gatton perform once and that was in 1989 on a triple bill with Johnny Winter and Buddy Guy/Junior Wells at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. At that time, I was a teenager enthralled with Johnny Winter, so I can’t honestly say I remember Gatton’s performance that well, but I did notice that it was jazzier and more sophisticated than the electric blues I was listening to at that time. Over the years, I have come to appreciate what a master of the instrument Gatton was and the album that opened the door for me was Redneck Jazz from 1978.
The Unfinished Business album pictured above was inscribed to a high school friend of mine back in 1988 when it was Gatton’s most recent album. It’s probably most notable for Gatton’s mesmerizing arrangement of Santo and Johnny’s "Sleepwalk."
In the summer of 2008, I saw Guy Davis perform as an accompanist for Pete Seeger and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger at the historic Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland. After the show, I handed Guy this copy of his debut release Dreams About Life and he was pretty surprised to see it. Before he signed the album, he showed it to his teenage son Martial who had never even seen it before.
Guy made this modest, likable recording for Folkways in 1978 and I’m not sure that he recorded anything else until the 1990s. There aren’t very many albums with double-neck guitars on the cover, but if you want to see more, check out this link.