Let’s start out by stating I know little about Johnny Winter…he’s a blues guitar player who greased his skids by emulating the masters…B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson III, Robert Johnson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Hearing the blues is a magic art of soulful appreciation and, among the pantheon of blues players, Mr. Winter has always stood tall.
A proud Texan, Johnny Winter wasn’t just a copycat of the blues, and listening to his music, well it’s just some of the finest guitar work ever. You know what it’s like to hear and see music on television and radio, and like it, but never witness it in concert. That’s where it was for me and Johnny Winter. I had never gotten the chance to see the guitar slinger in person and tonight was my chance.
So it came to be Johnny Winter was appearing at the Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis and surely he’s getting up in years, so it was on my list of things to do in ’09. Ram’s Head is a small venue, sketchy seating, friendly folks, free parking (with ticket stamped) and easy to get to…less than an hour’s ride from Forest Hill.
January 16th was my Dad’s birthday…if he were living he’d be 96 and even though we went to concerts together, like Frank Sinatra and The Fifth Dimension, it’s doubtful he would have wanted to go with me to see Johnny Winter, who is now 65, hailing from Beaumont, Texas, where he formed his first band at the age of 14, Johnny and The Jammers.
He and his younger brother, Edgar Winter, have albinism. Edgar, a keyboard player, played with Johnny at Woodstock forty years ago. Johnny also produced Grammy-caliber albums for Muddy Waters, among other bluesmen..
The Johnny Winter Band opened with Vito Liuzzi (drums), Paul Nelson, guitar, and Scott Spray, bass guitar. Like the blues as often as not, after a slow downbeat things stepped right up into high gear…the band set the stage with the right tempo for the star attraction…the man I had heard oh those many years ago was assisted onto the small stage directly in front of me. Other than needing a hand walking, once he sat down to play…well, he was like a marathon runner who hasn’t lost a step.
He didn’t have his trademark ‘pinkie slide’ on, saving it for later. Every single number they played was introduced by who wrote or performed it, followed by that slow, deliberate…” one annnnnddddd twooooo, annddd threeeeeeee…bam, slam, off and running full fuel ahead…” The man can play like lightning, those long, thin fingers working up and down the frets, never missing a beat, getting faster all the time.
B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters all would be proud of the Winter interpretations he offered up at this show. Even Ray Charles would be smiling listening to Johnny play a fine Blackjack, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Red House’ was the best of the first set without doubt.
Poker faced, sitting, playing, and sipping bottled water, a black Stetson hiding his eyes from the lights that must be hell on pale eyes…simply unbelievable seeing this virtuoso man-handling every single blues tune they played.
No ‘dilly dallying’ between numbers, no small talk, just straight forward blues, non-stop, hitting home to the packed house…great applause after each from die-hard fans…the couple next to me drove down from Philly, while the couple across from me came from North Carolina, and were going to see him again, in North Carolina later this month.
A cult following for sure, just like David Allen Coe, John Prine and Leon Redbone…and now a part of it was in my memory.
Rough Texas blues, hard edged, direct, ‘don’t screw with me blues’…the old axe he uses is shaped like a ‘flying wedge’ but not exactly…that’s how much I know about guitars…doesn’t matter, it was the sound coming out of it that blew me away.
Johnny doesn’t get around that well anymore, but once he sits down, he’s going one-hundred miles an hour, with no seat belt on.
He played about an hour, fast and furious and that was it…he was assisted off stage left…as the band and the house called for “Johnnnneeeee”…and back he came for two scorchers and then ripped into what I came to hear him play…Bob Dylan’s “Highway Sixty One.” There are only a few musicians around who could up and steal a Bob Dylan song and make it their own..Johnny did just that with this fireball number and I’ll tell ya, that was the cream atop the oatmeal…he hasn’t missed a beat in all the years he’s been performing it….great Johnny…you made the trip to our state’s capitol worth the drive…
Out into the cold winter night, full of the blues from a living legend…the ride home was smoother because of it. And to finally get to hear what’d I’d been missing all this time…well, it was worth the wait.