Johnny Winter- True To the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (BOX SET REVIEW)

johnnywinterAs depicted in its chronological delineation of recordings, True to the Blues illustrates how the recently deceased Johnny Winter became one of contemporary blues’ most formidable guitar heroes. Rising above more than a little hype when he signed with Columbia Records for a sizable bonus in 1969, after a somewhat formulaic label debut, he resumed the initiative within the title of his first unsung long-player, The Progressive Blues Experiment, with Second Winter. Originally a three-sided vinyl release, this eclectic set of material, fused together by the Texas-born albino’s white-hot guitar playing, erected a foundation to rest upon for the remainder of a career in which, as depicted over the course of four CDs, he moved away (sometimes too far) from the blues, but always returned to what he loved and did the best.

Pulling from every stage of Winter’s career, the producers of this anthology hold true to history and refuse to eschew Winter’s concessions to commercialism during his later years . Thus, Johnny’s collaboration with Rick Derringer of The McCoys and “Hang On Sloopy” fame are rightly juxtaposed with latter day recordings from the Alligator label as well as his simultaneous resuscitation of Muddy Waters’ career and his own, on manager Steve Paul’s Blue Sky label. The honesty of its compilation, combined with the attention to detail which exhumes unreleased live recordings and excerpts from previous archive titles, serves as a means to reaffirm the man’s devotion to a music that resonated in his heart and soul as if of his very own personal creation. Ultimately more of a stylist than a true innovator, the late, great Johnny Winter nevertheless reminded what a fertile grounds of imagination and emotional expression is this deceptively simple musical form.

DISC ONE: An artful intermixing of studio and live recordings precludes a rote introduction to The Johnny Winter Story. The latter includes “It’s My Own Fault,” in a Fillmore East appearance where Michael Bloomfield introduces a sit-in with the very man who’d later substitute for him during a similar California coast run supporting the classic Super Session (Columbia, 1968) album with keyboardist Al Kooper, late of the Blues Project and the founder of the original incarnation of Blood Sweat and Tears. An even gutsier take on “Mean Town Blues,” with the otherwise rock-oriented Johnny Winter , follows in short order here in addition to a single excerpt from Winter’s Woodstock appearance, “Leland Mississippi Blues.” There are also two culls from a Royal Albert Hall concert in England, “Black Cat Bone” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” the remainder of which, featuring multi-instrumentalist sibling Edgar (he of “Frankenstein” fame) was included in the two-disc Legacy edition of Second Winter. This seminal portrait’s rounded out with straight blues such as the autobiographical “Dallas,” reminding Johnny could maneuver the bottleneck on a dobro as artfully as a slide on an electric guitar, the definitive example of which is his blazing reinvention of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

DISC TWO: Given Columbia Records’ investment in Johnny Winter, it’s somewhat puzzling the sonic clarity of his earliest live recordings, from Atlanta Pop 1970 and from stage shows with Derringer and co., doesn’t match the ferocity of his own playing. Still, there’s no denying the chemistry of Johnny Winter, and despite the fact that, passionate as that straight hard rock sounds in the form of originals such as “On the Limb” and “Guess I’ll Go Away,” its depth can’t compare to excerpts from additional Fillmore New York recordings left unreleased at the time of the issue of “Good Morning Little School.” As full of ideas as was Winter, he could still play economically and share the stage with the band: hear how his interaction with Derringer is close to telepathic. Returning from hiatus devoted to his health, Winter returned to the trio format for Still Alive and Well, produced in a no-frills style by Derringer that unfortunately would give way to more polished and clearly less heartfelt material in the form of Saints & Sinners and John Dawson Winter III, this was as far from the blues as Johnny Winter ever got.

DISC THREE: It’s not an uncommon irony for an artist to reach peak of public recognition with their least interesting work and Winter’s latter-day Blue Sky records are examples of that phenomenon. Despite signature songs like his cover of the Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” along with co-billing on tour with his brother–who was now almost equally famous– Johnny’s celebrity eclipsed his artistry on numbers such as “Rollin’ Cross the Country” and “Rock and Roll People.” It’s fortunate it’s followed in short order here with the salty likes of “Sweet Papa John.” A willful return to his roots late in the Seventies rightfully renewed purpose and passion within Winter, so much so he did justice to himself by producing and playing live for his mentor Muddy Waters. The presence of harpist James Cotton in the studio and on stage added legitimacy to “Walkin’ Thru the Park” and “I Done Got Over It,” (as if any more were really necessary), so it was only logical Johnny Winter would subsequently move to Alligator Records after punctuating his career on his previous label with White Hot & Blue, an emphatic return to what he knew, loved and played the best, represented here with “Nickel Blues” and “Bon Ton Roulet.”

DISC FOUR: In comparison to his early trio with Uncle John Turner and Tommy Shannon (who went on to play bass for Stevie Ray Vaughan) and the ‘Alive and Well’ group, Johnny Winter’s backing bands lacked distinction at about the same time his music did, even though his own playing and singing more often than not remained fiery. It may be no coincidence then that, as he recommitted himself to blues, a surety arose in his accompanists directly in line with the simplicity and passion of this music and in turn in this wraith-like figure’s revivified stage presence. Edgar Winter continues to support Johnny, as does Dr. John, whose distinctive piano work graces “Illustrated Man.” That stellar performance from the Let Me In album, his first for Virgin/Pointblank, foreshadows the latter day appearances of Vince Gill on Chuck Berry’s classic “Maybellene” and Derek Trucks on “Dust My Broom,” from the album aptly titled Roots. In keeping with the rediscovery of his uncanny style of abandoned playing, equally gristly and fluid (hear the performance at the Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration), a ‘ Bootleg Series’ of live recordings began, duly documenting that, while physical issues in later years might hamper Johnny Winter, when he did live up to his legend, he was in line with the tradition of the music he loved so much to the day he died. Little wonder the testimonials scattered throughout this strikingly colorful booklet, from such luminaries as Gregg Allman, Leslie West and Billy Gibbons, carry a ring of genuine admiration congruent with the best music in this set.

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