"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.
Coach Gibbons Day:
.5 miles on stationary bike
12 Sumo dead lift high pulls at 65 lbs.
12 push presses with 20 lb. dumbbells
1000 meter row