Friday, February 29, 2008

The Original Texas Guitar Hero

Before there was Stevie Ray Vaughan, there was Johnny Winter, the original Texas guitar hero. Sometime in 1972, I went to a garage sale down the street from my parents' house. I had gotten word that the neighbors who lived there were selling some records their kids had left at home after moving out. And so, for 25 cents, I got the first album by a guy I'd heard of but never heard. Honestly, my 17-year old ears had trouble grappling with the rawness of Johnny Winter. I knew Winter was a terrific guitarist because a guitar-playing friend of mine had told me so. But I'd never heard a serious blues album before -- I lived in Kingsville, Texas -- and Winter's approach was a lot different than Simon and Garfunkel, the Moody Blues, and Black Sabbath. I can hear now what I couldn't hear then: That his playing came from within, from lived experience rather than detached observation or showmanship. In any case, something about the record kept calling me back, especially the rough acoustic blues of "Dallas" (listen to it here).

"Dallas" threw me for a loop. The throaty, rasping vocal was all wrong and yet it came out all right. The blunt, violent lyrics had nothing to do with my life or the way I wanted my life to be. But they bespoke a swaggering independence and readiness to stand up for oneself that anybody wanted. And the confrontational guitar playing -- nothing like the smooth filigrees of Carlos Santana that I loved and still love -- glued together a 2:45 paean to male youth, vitality, and nerve unlike the sensitive, "meaningful" lyrics of James Taylor. I'd never heard anything like "Dallas," and it scared me a bit that it resonated so personally.

Thirty-six years later, I hear "Dallas" and understand that Johnny Winter wanted to write a Robert Johnson song. Now I can hear a 25-year old white guitarist with an atypical knowledge of and respect for blues history. I can also hear a young performer brimming with so much confidence that he didn't want to merely cover the master's work, he wanted to recreate it in his own image. The ultimate brilliance of "Dallas" is that Johnny Winter succeeded in doing just that.

So why did it take me so long to see the guy perform? I dunno. But for whatever reason, it took until last night at Seattle's Showbox, where PK, my friend Mark W., and I took in a tightly packed and exceptionally played 75-minute set by Winter, accompanied for the most part by a bassist and drummer. Time has not been kind to Johnny Winter. The ravages of a devastating mid-70's heroin addiction have left him hunched over and unable to stand while performing. (PK remarked that, in photos, Winter looks like a "human syringe.") His voice, while it can carry a tune, no longer rumbles from the back of a throat that must be raw by now. But that guitar playing...

Whatever disappeared with youth is more than made up for by experience. Performing is still a labor of love for the man, and through his guitar he channeled 50 years of playing the blues. He knows the genre and his instrument like the back of his hand and he plays them like what they are: The true love of his life. One perfectly developed solo after another spilled forth, and although he favored mid-tempo numbers, it was the slow blues like "Red House" that shined brightest. For "Red House," he strung a series of six solos together, one progressing naturally to the next and each impossibly improving on the one before it. It was as pure a display of sheer virtuosity as I've seen. Mark turned to me to say that "We're in the presence of the gods." No argument from me.

Winter reached back to the beginnings of his estimable career and delivered fresh renditions of old songs. He played new stuff and it sounded great. I never heard a superfluous of self-indulgent note. His tone has softened: He's largely abandoned his stinging, air-puncturing style for a slurred, warmer approach that seems better suited to middle age while conceding nothing to it. For the encore, he played slide for the first time and finished up with a blistering version of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," a song he perfected back when Nixon was president. As Johnny Winter has had occasion to remind us through the years, he's still alive and well.

3 times:
250-meter row
10 squats
10 push-ups

3 times:
.5 miles on stationary bike
12 push presses with 20 lb. dumbbells

1000 meter row


Renegade Eye said...

The white hair and skininess, always gave him the whatever happened to Johnny look. In Texas you have to be good to make it.

serendipity said...

One of my favorites is Tribute to Muddy from his early work The Progressive Blues Experiment (your neighbor across the street used to listen to it all the time...) Check it out, I think you'll like it.

K. said...

I'm listening to "Tribute to Muddy" as I write! My high school guitar-playing friend extolled "The Progressive Blues Experiment" every chance he got. In explicably, I just got it last month. Incidentally, Johnny does a great Highway 61 on the DVD "Crossroads: The Eric Clapton Guitar Festival 2007." He looks like the 121-year old Jack Crabb in "Little Big Man." (See

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Steven Pearl said...

Johnny is amazing. I've been a diehard fan of his since I saw him rock the Fillmore East in 1971 (on the bill with the original lineup of the Allman Brothers the weekend they recorded that classic live album) and I've seen him play every time he was within 100 miles of me since then. He always gives 112% and plays with all the fire and soul of 1000 Chess recording artists from the olden days. He had a few rough years recently, but as of a few years ago he's cleaned up (no alcohol, no pills, no garbage of any kind) and he's back in the game big time. In fact Johnny IS the game! See him when he plays near you. Your ears and soul will thank you forever.