Johnny Still Playin' Nothin' But the Blues

Johnny Winter - Live In NYC '97
(Pointblank Records)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)

By Tony Bonyata

Who would've ever thought thirty years ago that some skinny white kid from Beaumont, Texas would emerge as one of the most exciting musicians to carry blues music into the next millennium.
When that skinny white kid, known as Johnny Winter, blew his way onto the blues music scene in 1969, with his smoking guitar style and his own interpretations of Chicago and Mississippi-Delta blues, he was heralded as America's answer to the blues explosion that English rockers, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were honing at the time
Although he started his career playing straight blues with no chaser, Winter realized that his music was appealing more to rock fans so by the time he released his 1973 album Still Alive And Well he had virtually lost all his bluesy instincts in favor of hard rock. The next few albums that followed, including a lackluster album that he recorded with his brother Edgar, continued in the hard rock vein but his career was being eclipsed by the likes of rock heavyweights, Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Aerosmith.
It wasn't until he released Nothing But The Blues in 1977, an album which he recorded with members of Muddy Water's band, that Winter realized that his true musical calling was to play down-and-dirty, Texas blues, something he's been doing ever since.
Winter went on to produce and record four albums with his idol blues legend Muddy Waters, two of which garnered Grammy awards (Hard Again and I'm Ready). These collaborations between the two not only gave credibility to Winter with blues purists but greatly helped boost Water's then sinking career
Continuing in this true-to-his-roots tradition Winter has just released a smoldering live album entitled Johnny Winter Live In NYC '97 that pays homage to not only the bluesmen whose songs he covers but also to his faithful fans who he polled to help choose the songs for this set.
The outcome is an energized show that showcases Winter's blistering ax work as well as a more laid back, smooth vocal style, as opposed to the deep, guttural screaming that was his trademark during his rock days. On the opening instrumental track "Hideaway" Winter shows no need for vocals as he lets his guitar do all the talking on this rollicking blues number. On Jimmy Reed's "The Sun Is Shining" and Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying" he pulls out his famed Gibson Firebird guitar to show-off some impressive slide chops. Winter and bandmates, bassist Mark Epstein and drummer Tom Compton, mix up a spicy musical gumbo on Snooks Eaglin's funky New Orleans flavored "Drop The Bomb" and on Ray Charles ballad "Black Jack" they let the dust settle a bit before Winter's gritty guitar dirties things up again.
With his music firmly planted in his Lone Star roots, this skinny white kid (now skinny white man with more tattoos than a circus sideshow) proves he can stand tall with any of his contemporaries as well as blues mentors. Muddy must be smilin'.

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