He’s old beyond his years, has trouble seeing, trouble walking, and for many years has belonged to that small elite of musicians that get ecstatic applause from their audiences when they come onstage, just for the fact that they have lived long enough to do it. The Media machine around Bluesrock legend Johnny Winter has trumpeted a ‘New Man’ though, and his latest CD ‘Roots’ certainly backs up the hype. Is it all true? I wanted to take a close look at the phenomenon that is Johnny Winter, and the cosy Club Concert atmosphere of Bonn’s Harmonie was the perfect place to see the man face 500 people and possibly his own demons, for 90 minutes of the Blues.
In his autobiography, BB King recalls playing a Club date in front of a black audience in the late 1960’s. Four white youngsters are at the bar. One of them asks if he can play a song or two and BB, not wanting to seem racist against the white boy, lets the youngster onstage. The youngster plays to thunderous applause. “I take note, I’d never got a standing ovation in a club like that in my life” recalled King. The youngster introduces himself – his name is Johnny Winter.
Elder statesmen of the Blues sometimes need a helping hand. In the mid 70’s Johnny Winter convinced his label ‘Blue Sky’ to give the ailing career of Muddy Waters a jolt of life. Waters was in his mid-sixties then and not in the best of health or spirits. The result was the classic album ‘Hard Again’ that put the man firmly back on top of the Chicago Blues Scene. It’s rather ironic then that Johnny Winter himself is in need of a helping hand in his own mid-sixties. Years of Heroin addiction and alcohol abuse, together with bad management, had all but extinguished the flame that burned so brightly at Woodstock. When it came, the helping hand belonged to an excellent guitarist named Paul Nelson who took over both management and damage control of Johnny’s career. There was a lot of lost confidence on behalf of promoters and listeners to win back though and my memories of his concert at Museumsplatz in 2007 are of a man who seemed barely able to hold his guitar. Of a Band doing the bulk of the work whilst Johnny only rarely showed the chops that once had him listed 74th on Rolling Stones All-time greatest guitarists. He was though a survivor, and that was something, but could he be more?
Then came the news late last year that Johnny Winter was on form again. No drugs, no smoking, no alchohol. A sizzling new CD ‘Roots’ seemed to confirm that the news was more than hype – and here we all are, waiting for the man at the Harmonie and maybe hoping for (expecting?) miracles.
Support band The Pancakes from Pforzheim are Rainer and Daniela Neef with Scots Drummer Russell McSwann. They describe their style as a ‘Magic Psychedelic Carpet with lots of Fuzz, Surf and Krautrock’. If that describes a band with a guitarist who uses foot pedals like other people use a typewriter then that’s what you get. It’s not a genre I’ve ever visited before and the music flashed past quickly – I remember a track about ‘The Age of the Elephant’ but mostly I was worried that the drumkit might fall on me as it was so far onto the stage edge. It must be said though that it was a performance that, in terms of energy at least, Johnny Winter was unlikely to match.
Harmonie employees swarmed over the stage and, Piranha fish like, seemed to strip the surface of surplus mikes, drums and guitars in seconds. A gentleman from the ‘General Anzeiger’ introduced himself and then introduced Johnny Winter – and we were off and running.
The frantic guitar of Rainer Neeff was replaced by the frantic guitar of Paul Nelson, who had just the opener to show his skills before taking a back-seat to the evenings Star. As at the Museumsplatz five years ago Johnny Winter was led onto the stage, helped to his seat, and handed his Laser guitar which, despite having no headstock and very little body, seemed like an enormous weight on Winters lap. I couldn’t say there was a spring in his step when he was helped onstage at the Harmonie, but certainly it seemed ‘springier’ than it did between the Museums. What was identical to that Museumsplatz evening though was the fact that I had just ‘Three Songs and No Flash’ to capture the essence of Johnny Winter on this evening in 2012 in an image. Problem: whatever the essence is, it’s clearly hidden under that stetson hat, and I’m clearly going to have to get down low and wait for the right expression. Except that there is no expression to capture. Winters features are as fragile as the thin arms that seem held together only by tattoos. The arms know their job is to hold that guitar and the face knows it’s job is to give nothing away. If I’m going to find out how much enjoyment Johnny Winter gets out of performing these days, I will have to do it by listening rather than seeing – three songs down, camera in its case, and I head for a place on the balcony steps where I can see above the crowded mass of expectant heads.
My ears tell me the band is good. Drummer Vito Luizzi is Rock solid and even handles vocals for ‘Tore Down’. Scott Spray has been bassist off and on with Johnny and brother Edgar for quite a few years now and he really doesn’t need to even glance at his fellow musicians to know what they’re playing. Paul Nelson on the other hand seems to spend the evening watching Johnny’s fingers like a hawk. At one stage I try getting both mens’ fret hands in sight at once and it’s like watching a reflection. The Band is hot for sure, but we came to hear Johnny Winter and it’s hard to seperate Winters licks from Nelsons – maybe no accident. There is plenty of Blues being played of course, like ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ and the Ray Charles classic ‘Blackjack’. There’s even a nod to the Masters Master when Winter announces “Here’s one by Muddy Waters, ‘Got My Mojo Working’” and even some Rock n Roll in the form of ‘Johnny B Good’. The music is pumping, virtue of the band, but Johnny though seems like he’s marking time. Playing just enough to cover the bases, but not more. He knows he can’t deliver high octane for 90 minutes, but like a seasoned boxer, he’s waiting for the moment to throw his best punches.
It’s ‘seconds out’ and time for ‘Boney Marony’. Despite my distance from the stage I swear I can see a glint appear in the eye of Johnny Winter. The one that was probably there way back at BB Kings gig all those years ago. Winter stands up to sing Jagger & Richards ‘It’s All Over Now’ and the audience erupts as it did when Louisiana Red used to step from his stool on this very stage. Winter looks as unsteady as Red did, but it’s still a welcome sight. Even more welcome is the sight of Johnny being handed his Gibson Firebird as he sits down to rapturous applause. Was that the bottleneck in his hand, or the glint in his eye catching the spotlight? It wasn’t long, but it was there, the old, young, Johnny Winter – Champion of a ‘new’ music discovery called Blues and master of the slide guitar. No attempting to cover or flesh out these runs for Paul Nelson. Moments like this are why he took over Winters management and he is as much a fan as we are as Winters bottleneck sizzles through‘Dust My Broom’. The energy holds for much of a long version of Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ but when the man finally leaves the stage there is no question of his coming back. The batteries are clearly drained. I do notice though that whereas he was helped up the steps to start the show he makes his way pretty much unaided back down them. Maybe Johnny himself was feeling for a moment again like the young hungry guitarslinger who blew away BB’s audience.
So is Johnny Winter really a man reborn? Should he be doing long, punishing, tours in his condition? And even, what is his condition anyway? Scott Spray told me he hadn’t seen Johnny look this good in years and it’s certainly better that he gets out on the road rather than wasting his life away in an armchair and finding time for old bad habits. Spray particularly praises Winters appearance on Americas premier ‘David Letterman’ Show’ recently. I suspect the band has a regular struggle deciding how much to throttle back on their own performance. If things continue this way then maybe we’ll be hearing less of the Johnny Winter Band and more of Johnny himself. I’m sure the Band hope so too. If you’re reading this Paul, I hope you will turn the amp dials down for Johnny’s return here in November – I have a feeling the glint in his eye is here to stay.
Finally, as recommended by bass player Scott Spray – Johnny Winter on David Letterman’s Show: