By Mike Finkelstein
This latest release from blues/rock legend Johnny Winter signifies one more move in the direction of his original roots in the blues. The album’s format is one of Johnny and a very boppin’ and rock-steady backing band (Vito Liuzzi on drums, Scott Spray on bass, Paul Nelson on guitar, and Mike DiMeo on keys) dusting off and polishing up an assortment of classic up tempo blues numbers that he cut his teeth on as an up and comer. A bevy of notable players and personalities guest throughout the project and the vibe is definitely sizzling. This really comes as no surprise as Winter has always played a very busy but smooth style of guitar with fingerpicks on his right hand and flying fingers on his left hand. Even when he plays his signature gyrating, wild slide guitar licks there is a fluidity that can mesmerize listeners.
Johnny Winter has been playing guitar professionally for fifty years or thereabouts and has shined as a player and interpreter the whole way through. Drawn to the emotion of the blues, and beginning in the mid-60’s as a regional phenomenon from Texas, he followed a series of fortuitous breaks straight into the limelight. He grew from blues into the blues/hard rock format in the early and mid-‘70’s, pushing the genre’s popularity with albums like “Second Winter,” “Johnny Winter And,” and “Still Alive and Well.” These albums saw him interpret everything from blues standards to Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Jagger/Richards, Lieber/Stoller and Traffic – and he did it beautifully.
He made an intriguing rock star, too. With his long white hair and gaunt albino appearance, he looked striking in top hats and long coats, pulling snarling licks out of a Gibson Firebird. His style has always been one of precision and endurance in the blues idiom — long guitar lines that crackle with his finger-picking approach. Nobody ever played a more vigorous version of “Good Morning Little School Girl” than Winter.
In the late ‘70’s Winter headed back to the blues, even working closely with Muddy Waters. And he has been on the blues circuit ever since. He occasionally tours and has done sets at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Concerts in 2007 and 2010. To this day he has a singular appearance — still with long white hair and a set of mysterious looking tattoos. Add to that the fact that he wears the blues juju like his skin. At age sixty-seven and with some pretty hard living behind him, his health doesn’t allow him to spend too much time on the road, and he has to play seated when he gigs. Still, he does continue to record and thus we have Roots in 2011. It’s a sheer delight for anyone who loves a great blues jam.
The album opens with Sonny Landreth sitting in on a red hot “T-Bone Shuffle” and oddly enough he evokes a harmonica with his slide guitar. The exchanges of power slide and subtler slide riffs between the two on this tune are remarkable and Winter’s voice sounds invigorated and soulful. Next we move into Bobby Blue Bland’s enticing standard, “Further on Up The Road,” and Elmore James “Done Somebody Wrong.” On the latter, Warren Haynes of, among others, the Allman Brothers Band, summons up a very authentic sounding array of Duane Allmanisms, paying homage to the legendary version of the song on Live at the Fillmore East.
On Little Walter’s “Last Night” John Popper shows up and establishes his very uniquely chromatic approach to blues harp, which Johnny counters nicely with slide and straight picking solos. Popper’s style is clean and articulated and doesn’t get into the glorious grit that many blues harpists often head for. It’s the contrast between harmonica and guitar that put this version over.
A romp through the covers that shaped young Johnny’s developing style wouldn’t be complete without a Chuck Berry offering. The choice here is “Maybelline” and it gets a decidedly hot country picking treatment from none other than Vince Gill. This song is also notable for some very tasty additional rhythm guitar fills that go beyond CB’s arrangement. Once again, Johnny’s vocal shines, sounding interesting, convincing and nothing like the original.
Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” features Susan Tedeschi trading vocals with Johnny and the song shines in a more subdued light. The Hammond organ provides most of the song’s color and the band plays clean under the vocals. Her voice is remarkably well matched with Winter’s as he rolls off a bit of the intensity in his delivery.
From the beginning of Johnny’s musical journey, his brother Edgar hasn’t been too far away to collaborate. He joins in on sax for a romp through the alluring Bill Doggett instrumental “Honky Tonk.” Edgar’s sax vamping pumps up the rhythm section unexpectedly and his solos are smooth but rollicking in the ‘50’s style. Hearing the two of them go at it here, one can only imagine how it may have sounded years ago in their Beaumont bedrooms.
A definite high point of Roots is the marvelous version of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” with Derek Trucks joining Johnny on slide. It’s a contrast in slide sounds as Derek plays with a more subdued tone, much less trebly, and Johnny’s tone is much brighter — with his amp no doubt ready to hop off the chair.
Many singers would give their right tooth to match Johnny Winter’s performance on “Come Back Baby.” That he also rises to this level with his guitar solo is impressive if not surprising, considering that it’s Johnny Winter we are listening to. In fact, the whole band just burns on this cut, complete with horns and a beautiful Hammond organ track from John Medeski. It’s a fine tune to close the album with.
We can only hope that Johnny Winter will continue to record at this high level for as long as possible. It’s inspiring and gratifying to hear him still in such fine musical form, both instrumentally and vocally.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.