Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet
Johnny Winter: Live Through the ‘80s
114 minutes, USD $19.95
When one thinks of effective white blues guitarists, mostly Brits seem to come to mind, like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. But Americans have their own share, such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mike Bloomfield, and Johnny Winter.
Johnny Winter is iconic. Texas bred, his long, straight white hair from albinism, tattoos from before they were passé, tall and lanky frame, and his headstockless Lazer guitar (which shows up early on in this collection), are all part and parcel of this artiste.
While he dabbled some in rock and roll, and even occasionally displays a tinge of country, such as on “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Winter is a blues man. He plays electric so he is often lumped into the Chicago school, but he actually plays both Northern and Delta picking style.
There are some quick interview bits here and there on this DVD, where he blithely discusses his love of the blues, but the core here is the music. Taken from a number of different sources from the five years 1983-1988, the songs are complete, even the longer ones where he gets into the groove and just gets his mojo working.
As the DVD starts, it’s Johnny and his ace bassist/harp player, Jon Paris - complete with ‘80s killer sideburns and ‘fro - who play off each other magnificently through all the songs (they played together from 1979 to 1989). In a few solos, Paris shows that his bass playing is strong, as is his harmonica, so he makes a fine foil for Winter.
In the first grouping of four songs from Massey Hall in Toronto (or Trono, as they pronounce it there), Bobby Torello plays drums. While he is an exceptional drummer, he is a bit out of place as he obviously is playing rock style, stepping all over the groove. After this show, Tom Compton joins the trio in his place. He is definitely better suited, and gets to show off some of his chops towards the end of the DVD.
The Massey Hall show is kind of visually fuzzy (from a videotape, as there are occasional short interviews edited in between a few songs), but the sound is sharp. As usual, most of the material is covers of older tunes, but he ends with a bluesy Bobby Womack song, “It’s All Over Now,” which the Rolling Stones also covered in ’64.
This brings us to the second set, which was filmed at the Roskide Festival in Denmark in front of a huge audience (reminiscent of all the “Aid” shows from the period). It opens with another Stones’ related song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” There is also adapted versions of Dylan’s “Highway 61” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s here the Lazer shows up, as Winter spins and twirls. He’s shirtless after the second song, as he often is, showing off his skinny, pale, and hawk-like frame – and yet his Stetson never is removed, as will remain true through the shows. Interestingly, being Denmark, there are plenty of people in the audience that are as blond(e) as him, and with some exceptions, these shots show many people not really paying attention to the music at hand. The evidence of this is the end of the set, where something is seen hitting Winter on the chest. He unstraps his guitar, says bitingly into the mic, “I bring you music and you throw things. Great.” Then he storms off the stage. As Paris leaves, he says (and apparently sincerely), “Good night! Thank you!” I could just imagine the conversation between the two backstage: “Why would you say thank you?!?!” I found the whole walking out thing very amusing, in hindsight.
The next set is from a British telly show with a remote in-studio introduction by the great Dave Edmunds, but the music plays out at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. The two cuts are typical of his style, from the solid “Mad Dog” and then shifting to the slow burner, “When You’ve Got a Good Friend.”
The video production from the Casbah in Nashua, NH, looks like it was probably in-house: it shakes and zooms about too earnestly to be professional, but the sound remains clear. “Lights Out” is a raver, reminiscent of “Black Sox” in classic I-IV-V style. As I mentioned above, Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” is a blues number, but Winter does it Texas-style, with a country flavor.
In 1984, Winter signed to Alligator Records, a great blues label, and they released a music video for “Don’t Take Advantage of Me.” The song is wonderful in a Bonnie Raitt sort of production of the period, but the video is, well, just terrible. It’s sexist against both genders: it shows women being abused (including Nora Dunn, just before she was on SNL!), and men being mean, stupid and macho (there’s a redundancy for ya); and it ends with Winter “tattooing” women with identical Texas Rose tattoos that he has on his arm, in a symbol of ownership. Yuck. This is quickly followed with a brief EPK (electronic press kit) video of him sitting in a directors-style chair and talking about the blues, tattoos and drugs.
Then, back to the music. In a television studio setting in Bromma, Sweden, is an incredibly well mixed two-song set of “Sound the Bell” and “Mojo Boogie.” All the instruments are clear, and it’s one of my favorite moments on the entire DVD, as Winter prowls the stage, hovering over his Lazer like a predator bird.
The last two songs, shot on the Piazza Duomo in Pistoia, Italy, has the murkiest visual here (my guess is probably due to a transfer from PAL rather than too many generations), but probably shows off the trio at their finest, with two looooooong pieces, a version of “Early in the Morning” and the guitar grinding “Serious As a Heart Attack.” “Early” features major solos for both Paris and Compton, but the fretwork of Winter stands out the most.
Winter knows his stuff. He is precise, with fast hands, and keeps a melody and rhythm going without giving up any quality or direction. Usually long guitar solos bore the crap out of me (one of the many reasons I fell in love with the Ramones), but even in the extended songs, I never felt the desire to skip ahead.
There is a Johnny Winter: Live Through the ‘70s, which I have not seen, but it was the 1980s when Johnny Winter was at his prime, and this DVD is a great collection of those moments when he was simply on fire.
Oh, and just for the hell of it: Edgar.
From Massey Hall with the wrong drummer: