Friday, January 6, 2012

Johnny Winter

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.