Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Winter arrives early in Salisbury

The rap on Johnny Winter has always been "brilliant blues guitarist who lost his way, who, ultimately, turned his back on the true faith, seduced, sadly, by the bright lights and big paydays as a rock gunslinger." Unless, of course, you were one of those rockers who grew up, musically, with the swagger of albums like "Johnny Winter And Live" and who still gets a little shiver up his spine when he hears brother Edgar's now-iconic introduction ("A lot of people keep asking me, uh, 'where's your brother?'") on the "Roadworks" album. Then the Texas-born axeman is a blues-rock shredder of the first order, even if, from the distance of three decades (yikes!) the work, the flash, however cherished, seems just a tad predictable. For Winter, in town for a weekend concert at Tupelo Music Hall in Salisbury, the rock thing is just a speck in the rearview. No hard feelings, mind you. And stories that he has completely abandoned rock are overstated. The 65-year-old guitarist still usually closes shows with his scorching cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," for example. But truth is that the thrill is long gone.

"I'm tired of rock," Winter says in a recent telephone interview from Connecticut, where he recently moved after a quarter-century in New York (he hasn’t lived in Texas since the '60s and doesn’t miss it, despite the mean season now enveloping us). He's a true believer, always has been, coming up listening to B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bobby Blue Bland, and Lightening Hopkins, to name a few. “Anything blues and I wanted in," he says. Of course, we always knew that, deep down in our hearts, and he made it quite plain years ago, not long after “Roadworks,” after dealing with his heroin addiction (“the worst mistake I ever made,” he says), when he collaborated with Muddy Waters, who Winter had long dreamed about working with, producing four albums, including three Grammy-winners, with the legendary bluesman — a partnership that also led Winter to record the self-explanatory “Nothing But the Blues” album, which found the Texas guitarist leading the old Muddy Waters band. Fact is that the rock thing, which began with "Second Winter," his second album (third, if you count “The Progressive Blues Experiment," which came out on a small label before getting picked up by Columbia after signing Winter in 1969, not long before Woodstock).

The move to rock, a style that, for many, still stubbornly defines him, was deliberate, but the choice was not his. His manager at the time thought blues ”was going out of style," and that Winter needed to think more Chuck Berry than Elmore James. Of course, this is the same manager who convinced Winter to distance himself from Woodstock, which, when the papers were being signed, looked like it was going to be a massive bust, the result being Winter did not get a song in the movie and, in fact, until recently, few people even knew he played at the era-defining festival. That particular historic wrong was finally righted early this year with the release of “Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience” earlier this year, which includes his complete eight-song performance. And, for the record, he doesn’t remember much about the festival — if you do, you weren’t there — other than being exhausted, waking up at midnight “on a bag of garbage in a press trailer” and stumbling out onto the stage to perform. The Woodstock album is the latest of what has been a virtual avalanche of Winter material over the past couple of years, from the release of a “lost”1968 Live at the Filmore session of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, featuring Winter playing B. B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” which became a staple of his shows for years. This was the performance that made the hearts of the Columbia A&R guys in the audience go thumpa-thumpa and set up Winter with a then-staggering $600,000 deal — which was not as impressive as sounds (it was a 10-year deal) and, looking back at it, not necessarily a good thing (“It put a lot of pressure on me,” says Winter. “I just wanted to play the blues.”). Over the past two years, Winter has also released five titles in his Live Bootleg series, which collects rare musical moments from his four-decade career. Volume 6 in the series is scheduled to be released next month. It will include covers of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack,” Freddie King’s “Sen-Sa-Shun,” Texas bluesman Frankie Lee Sims’ “She likes to Boogie Real Low,” and B.B. King’s classic “It’s My Own Fault,” an extended “bonus” track that clocks in at nearly 15 minutes of pure blues ecstasy.The disc will also include two of Winter’s classic originals: the slide guitar-infused “White Line Blues” and the jump blues rocker “Johnny Guitar.”

He’s also the subject of a biography. “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Life of Johnny Winter” by Mary Lou Sullivan will hit the shelves in late spring. Just how wild, just how raucous is it? Winter has read the book and is a fan. “It's got all the stuff,” he says. “All the good stuff and the bad stuff.” He’s put in 40 years on the road, and he has no interest in selling the tour bus and settling down. "I love it,” he says. “I don't ever want to stop.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Johnny Winter will perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 18 at Tupelo Music Hall, 4 Ocean Front North, Salisbury. Tickets are $45. For more information, call 603.437.5100 or log onto the venue's web. For more info on the artist, click here. Check out Amazon to reserve a copy of "Raisin Cain," the new Winter biography.

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