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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Astoria, London, April 27th 2007

We’ve just demolished a delicious plate of crispy fried eel and the table’s being cleared. “Where you go tonight” asks our waiter, “Show, maybe drinking?”. “Concert, Johnny Winter”. “Who?” he replies, faced etched with puzzlement – then he relaxes, “Ah yes, isn’t he some country and western guy?”.

In the Astoria on the stairs there’s a punter on the ‘phone: “No, I told you last time he was fucking shite. He was so shite I said I’d never go and see him again. It was fucking awful. I don’t know. Yes I know I said I’d never go and see him again, but well, you know ….” The omens aren’t good. And upstairs with the old folks in the Pickle Factory (actually it’s old folks downstairs too) there’s a prescient atmosphere, but I can tell that the toothless soothsayers around us (some have brought their sandwiches to sooth on with their warm canned beer) are only foretelling doom. Me – I’m just surprised to be here. I had honestly thought Johnny Winter was dead.

And for the benefit of our charming waiter at the Fung Shing let me remind you that in his day Johnny Winter was the king of hot-shot blues-rock guitarists. Plucked from obscurity by the magazine Rolling Stone ("Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard.") his striking features and equally striking guitar style were a constant features of the early seventies music scene. Plagued by ill-health since childhood, Winter’s response was to plunge himself into drug and alcohol addiction from which he returned in the late seventies to produce Muddy Waters’ final three albums, including the outstanding Hard Again. Johnny
Since then he’s turned himself increasingly to the blues, and although his fame has somewhat diminished, he has continued to tour and record – 21 albums in all, several of which, including the 2004 offering, I’m a Bluesman, have been Grammy nominated.
Johnny Winter
Opening is Scott Mckeon and his band, playing Hendrix-tinged pedal-fuelled (to be accurate a Blues Power Fuzz, an 808 Tubescreamer, a Roger Mayer Octavia, a Voodoo Vibe Jr, a Line 6 DL4 and not forgetting a Fulltone Clyde Wah) blues – he was also warm up man for Joe Bonamassa. But despite the polite reception he gets the audience is only here to see one man. It’s a Friday night – the Pickle Factory goes GAYE at 11.00 pm so we don’t have to wait long for Winter’s band to take the stage. Guitarist Paul Nelson, drummer and occasional vocalist Wayne June and bassist Scott Spray run through a noisy rhythm and blues piece before Winter is helped up onto the stage. He’s accompanied to his chair, walking with a deep stoop like a seriously old man – he’s cadaverous – his arms skin and bone. Once in his chair he crouches painfully over his lightweight Erlewine Lazer and it’s clear that while the mind seems willing the body ain’t.
Johnny Winter
His playing is very stiff and slow – and strangely guitarist Nelson has left the stage. I always imagined in situations like this it’s the guitarist’s job to cover for his boss – but he only returns for the final number, leaving Winter’s frailties cruelly exposed. There are odd flashes of real class – notably in the first solo on ‘Blackjack Blues’ (attributed by some to Bob Dylan but thought to be a Ray Charles original) for the most part his playing is a shadow of the past. That’s not to say it doesn’t get better as the night goes on but it’s always careful and restrained. He’s also lost his voice – ‘though he does sing on a number of songs and occasionally rises to the moment – such as encore ‘Highway 61’. It’s a desultory affair – almost painful to watch at times - with the crowd I think just relieved that he makes it through each song. In the end he plays for about 75 minutes (an unduly long portion of which is taken up by a very indifferent ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ during which Wayne June narrates the story of Johnny and Muddy, as if we didn’t know), finishing on slide and his famous Gibson Firebird. Then his assistant and band carefully help him to the back of the stage and down the steep stairs to his dressing room.
You can’t help wondering why artistes put themselves through this sort of thing – can it really just be for the money? Or is there something about the adrenalin rush of being on stage that they simply can’t give up? Either way my advice to Mr Winter would be to rest on your laurels, embrace your great past, and stay at home. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Johnny does have a brother called Edgar, who he still teams up with occasionally, and who unlike his brother is in pretty good shape. We saw him a couple of years ago – as a result he’s a Whiskyfun Music Award Winner – and if he turns up in your town I’d happily suggest you go along for some fun. It’s a shame I can’t say the same about his brother. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Edgar Johnny Winter
Edgar (left) and Johnny Winter, 1976

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