Better Than: Johnny Winter's performance on the Crossroads Festival DVD
There are increasingly fewer artists with a tangible and direct impact on the direction of blues music still working today. We have but one of the three Kings left in B.B., and Buddy Guy is hanging tough and arguably playing as well as ever. However, for a genre that truly depends on its aural tradition to continue and that holds such an incredible reverence for its history, performances by what few members of the fabled old guard that remain are important.
Accordingly, people came out in droves to Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room to catch Johnny Winter perform a set of his incomparable rock 'n' roll blues on an fittingly cold Saturday night.
While a lesson on Johnny Winter's history and impact warrants a blog of its own, the short of it is that while the term legend is thrown around and applied to an innumerable legion of impostors, Winter -- an albino from Texas -- found acceptance in the eyes of the originators of the genre. Like Muddy Waters, with whom he produced albums and performed with frequently and jamming with Hendrix, he is, for all intents and purposes, an incredibly important strand in the tapestry of the blues that ties it to rock music.
The evening was opened by a curiously out-of-place local group named Dayride Ritual. It was as if Jim Carrey were fronting Alice in Chains. There were button-down shirts emblazoned with tramp stamp screen prints, hand gestures to conjure spells upon the crowd, would-be, but not-even-close Ian Gillan-esque screaming falsettos. A megaphone was used at one point, and a general feeling of uncontrollable douche chills was felt by all throughout the band's set. The real shit part of it is that we actually do have a smattering of proper blues artists in South Florida that surely would have been elated to have the opportunity to open for Winter, and instead, we were offered the death rattle of 1995.
Fortunately, the group backing Winter came to the stage shortly after the ritual was complete and cracked into a classic Texas shuffle to cleanse the room of the prior shlock-ery. Led by guitarist Paul Nelson, the band warmed the crowd with a burning salvo of the blues that welcomed Winter to his seat at the front of the stage.
The now 69-year old Winter (armed with his trusty Erlewine Lazer guitar) took off on the rollicking rhythms of "Jonny B Goode," and it was immediately apparent that while Winter might move a little slower, he still has the goods necessary to bring the house down.
Only a few years back, a Johnny Winter performance was an unfortunate display of missed notes, wrong bends, and a man that was still tied to the beck and call of the very vices that had destroyed the lives of many a bluesman before him. However, with the introduction of guitarist/manager Nelson to the fold, Winter has cleaned back up and made an incredible return to form.
Winter sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and channeled the blues from another time into his diminutive black guitar. The backing band made the job as easy as possible for Winter by locking in hard and working as one with a fiery delivery. They bolstered the formerly unstoppable Winter's thumb-pickin' blues and abandoned pirate yells.
Songs like "Got My Mojo Working" paid homage to former mentor Muddy Waters while keeping things grooving hard. However, it was during "Killing Floor" that Winter finally warmed up to a point where we saw shades of the magnificent playing -- so well documented on albums like Johnny Winter And. It was a comparison made easier by Paul Nelson's athletic playing which was not unlike the counterpoint once provided by Rick Derringer.
Winter left his perch just long enough for a bearded roadie wearing a leather jacket, boots, and a Richard Petty-type cowboy hat to come out and solicit the crowd to cheer for an encore until Winter returned. For the encores, Winter returned with the beaten and tattered Gibson Firebird he's toted around since the mid '60s around his neck. And finally -- after an entire night of going without -- he gave the crowd some of the bottleneck mastery they had most likely come out to see.
The night closed with blazing renditions of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" and "Highway 61 Revisited," complete with all of the flailing vibrato and slippery licks Johnny Winter fans adore. The night with Winter proved that regardless of what happens to one's body, the soul cannot age.
Personal Bias: Slide guitar freak, big Winter fan!
Random Detail: Winter still travels in an RV instead of a bus. Something about that is awesome to me.