By Dave Rubin
Johnny Winter ascended the stage at B.B. King’s Blues Club near Times Square on February 9 like blues royalty. After 50 years of dedicating his life to the music while learning from and supporting first-generation Chicago blues legends, in particular Muddy Waters, he has been accorded the same honor and respect. His loyal subjects cheered his appearance and hung on his every note and utterance.
It has been one long, hard road back from the edge of physical and financial collapse that he was approaching following years of abuse and neglectful mismanagement, and the journey is not over yet. However, Johnny grows stronger in body and spirit with each engagement, for which he owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to his new vibrant manager, Paul Nelson. A ferocious and accomplished guitarist in his own right, equally at home playing the real blues or hip progressive rock, Nelson opened the show with Johnny’s regular rhythm section of bassist Scott Spray and drummer Wayne June, and blazed on his Strat to the obvious delight of the crowd. He would graciously retire to the wings when Johnny took his seat at the mike, but in a welcome change from previous shows, Nelson was brought back for a romping encore version of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.”
In between, Johnny presented his regular set, including “Hide Away,” “She Likes to Boogie Real Low,” “Blackjack,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Johnny Guitar” and “Tore Down,” with the welcome addition of “Miss Ann.” Time and tides may have diminished the explosive energy that once blew audiences away, but Johnny has replaced the pyrotechnics with tough, deep blues that burn like a banked coal fire, warming and lighting up everything and everybody they touch. The slow blues of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack,” coming after a series of bangin’ shuffles embellished with a textbook full of riffs, afforded Johnny the opportunity to reach way down in his soul for sensuous bends and shimmering vibrato as he crooned the gambler’s lament. One of the finest white blues singers of all time along with Gregg Allman, Johnny can still send a shiver down the spine when he leans into the mike and pours his heart out.
As always, the highlight of any Johnny Winter show occurs when his well-worn 1963 Firebird V is wheeled out to replace the utilitarian Erlewine Lazer that he favors the majority of the time. Its open D tuning was put to the test on Johnny’s own “Mojo Boogie” and Bob Dylan’s classic “Highway 61 Revisited,” which the Texas blues master can now rightfully claim as his own. Sizzling treble licks and growling bass runs skittered off his slider as he recounted Dylan’s take on the Old Testament parable about Abraham.
Though no official poll has been taken, it is likely from their reaction that Johnny’s fans would love to hear him play even more slide, including solo on a National Steel at which he once excelled. We can only hope. In the meantime, every note sung and played is a treat not to be missed.