By the late 60s, rock audiences were no strangers to startling sights and sounds on stage, but Johnny Winter must still have been a visually arresting proposition.
Johnny Winter: True To The Blues
Four decades’ worth of electrifying performances from Texan rocker.
Albino performers were rare enough, but seeing Johnny and his brother Edgar sporting long white hair while playing such jaw-dropping heavy blues must have had a certain novelty value. Sure, this was a (very) white man playing the blues, but anyone with ears and a smidgeon of soul would have kept listening as a result of Winter’s virtuosity as a guitarist and his roaring vocal delivery ensuring that, between 1968 and 1971, he was one of the hottest live tickets on either side of the Atlantic and a highlight of any of the many festival bills he graced.
Few would dispute Winter’s status as one of the key players in giving the blues a shot in the arm at that time, but his sometimes understated influence on Southern rock is just as clear in the early cuts on this 57-track collection.
The lithe, lowdown twang of I’m Yours And I’m Hers would surely have caught the ear of Lynyrd Skynyrd [and was, of course, famously covered by the Stones at Hyde Park in tribute to Brian Jones], and the sleazy groove of Mean Town Blues wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by ZZ Top.
His higher-octane, growling overhaul of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited also breathes a new sense of urgency into it to complement the original’s laconic approach, a contrast which reflects the rocket Winter and his contemporaries put under the blues tradition.
There’s also much to like on the three live tracks from Atlanta Pop in 1970 included here, which have thus far been unavailable on CD. Eyesight To The Blind’s tight, sinewy boogie is lit up by Winter’s writhing fits of instrumental invention and a lusty, half-cut style of vocal delivery that could surely get you arrested in certain states.
Given that this is roughly when his heroin use began spiralling out of control, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he sounds a little wobbly but, if anything, it adds an even greater edge to that number. Likewise his readings of Mean Mistreater and Prodigal Son from the same show.
The rest of this compilation might be familiar to hardcore Johnny Winter fans, but the less well-acquainted shouldn’t be put off by the large number of live tracks featured here – this was where he really came into his own as an instrumentalist. Check out the 11-plus minutes of It’s My Own Fault from Johnny Winter And... Live for a stunning example of that.
This compilation also covers more ground than any previous releases, as it gathers material from no fewer than 27 albums on eight different labels.
While the material recorded in the 80s sometimes has that all-too-familiar production sheen of the day, the live performances (which make up a third of the track listing) still smoke with the heat he created on that Firebird fretboard.
And lastly, the cuts from his final album in 2011 show that even as he passed his 70th birthday (with which this release coincides), Johnny was still on fire.