Thursday, October 20, 2011

Concert Review: Johnny Winter, October 19, 2011, at Louis', in Saskatoon

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Poster from the Internet

Despite being the pub on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, Louis' (pronounced Louie’s) is quite sizable, holding well over 200, and has had a long series of distinguished guests perform there. On October 19, 2011, it was Johnny Winter and his band.

Now, I hate to be late for the opening act, because I’ve seen some amazing shows in my life. Due to an employment situation, however, I couldn’t get there until after Vancouver native David Gogo had already begun. Another solid Blues act, the 20 minutes or so that I did manage to catch were some amazing Delta smolders and shouters, some played on a beautiful 1930 resonator guitar, the other an acoustic from 1915, if I remembered the dates correctly. The five songs I heard were crisp, to say the least, and the banter between songs consisted of the history of the resonator (and its function, of course), along with some corny material (something like, “Don’t be a name dropper, Al Pacino once told me…”) and a pointer towards the merch table. For his conclusion, he covered Winter’s “Dallas.” It seemed appropriate that night. As for his Blues playing, it was sublime.

Yes, Winter’s life tale is long told and easy to find: Texas bred with brother Edgar, grew up with Blues as a force, found rock’n’roll and became a rock guitar god with the likes of British “brothers” Clapton and Page, fell into addiction during the hedonistic late ‘60s, came out the other side in the ‘70s to reclaim the Blues as his own.

Here it is in the third decade after recovery, and Johnny Winter is still going musically strong. With a new album under his belt, the all-covers Roots (, he is assisted by the likes of Jimmy Vivino, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, and, of course, Edgar. It was on the basis of promoting this CD that he started this tour last year, as it wings its way through its Canadian arm.

Johnny Winter’s band came out on stage first: Paul Nelson (guitar), Scott Spray (bass) and Vito Liuzzi (drums), all with terrific Blues rock heritage, including having all been the back-up band for Eric Sardinas. They could be a great power trio on their own, but why do that when you can open for one of the great living Blues men of the modern age?

With a huge Johnny Winter banner on the wall behind Liuzzi, front and center was a plain wooden seat and a mic before it, with a box on the side holding a water bottle. As the band was blowing a jam hard, the MC helped Winter onto the stage, leading him to the chair. He looked frail and bent, beyond his 67 years, but when he sat with his black headless Lazer guitar on his lap, his fingers just about flew.

Now, while I’m a fan of the Blues, I’m hardly an expert, so please excuse any errors, or better, let me know and I’ll correct it.

The first of his more than dozen numbers was Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” Johnny’s voice was in decent shape considering the breadth of the tour, with his signature growl having a bit of gravel. His eyes faced straight ahead, with little variance, due to vision issues (this was obvious by the way he reached for his bottle of water). With little fanfare by way of between-song banter, unlike Gogo’s enjoyable glibbery, Johnny started the next song as he did with many others, “This is ‘Sugar Coated Love’ [by Jay Miller].”

I was informed before I went in that photos were permitted only during the first three songs, and especially no flash. But this is the electronic age, where people sell their souls not to play excellent guitar at a mysterious intersection at midnight, but for ubiquitous cheap pocket and cell phone cameras. A large crowd was in front, all snapping – well, clicking – away, flash on. But not wanting to be the Ugly American and keep my word, somewhat, I did take photos – and honestly during more than for the three songs – but I only took two with flash. But my lesson was learned, as thanks to Johnny’s pale skin juxtaposed by his standard black clothing (and customary hat), the contrast made the closer picture of him unusable. I kept the one of the whole band, but for the others, stayed with the non-flash shots, which worked better in black and white.

As has been true since at least his 1979 appearance on the German television program Rockpalast (available at, Johnny mixes in some rock and roll with the Blues, though far less than he did in the 1960s. This was represented by an blazing cover of Chuck “the true king of rock and roll” Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (he does “Maybellene” on the CD) and Bobby and Shirley Woman’s “It’s All Over Now” (I’m sure most people there that night, myself included, consider it a Rolling Stones’ song). However, Jagger and Richard’s were represented by “Gimme Shelter,” though for many years, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” had been a JW show regular.

The first song off this set from his new CD is “Got My Mojo Workin’,” by Preston Foster. One aspect to notice was just how many different styles of Blues was played during the show, from Chicago, Texas, Delta, and so on. There were slow burners like Ray Charles’s “Black Jack” to rave ups such as Larry Williams’s “Boney Maronie.” Isn’t it amazing how much diversity can evolve from the simple Blues progression of I-IV-V?

Along with all the covers, Johnny showcased his own material with “She Likes to Boogie Real Slow” and “Lone Wolf,” two classics that easily fit into the Blues cannon and surely will continue to be covered by other artists, keeping the oral Blues tradition alive.

The only break in singing (other than extended solos) for Winter was when drummer Vito Liuzzi admirably took over on Freddie King’s “Tore Down” in the middle of the set. The rest of the band definitely had their time to shine, though, with their own fiery lead licks here and there, along with Johnny’s two introductions of his back-up.

For the last song in the set, “It’s All Over Now,” Johnny left the chair and stood for the entire number, which was quite the showstopper. After it ended, the band left the stage to ringing applause and standing Os. This went on for a few minutes, when my friend asked, “think he’ll do an encore?” “Oh, yeah,” I responded, pointing out the roadie readjusting the chair and mic. Sure enough, the band returned, and this time Johnny was clutching his infamous 1964 Gibson Firebird V, which, like him, looked the wear of the years but sounded solid.

For the encore, they started with Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” the second song off the Roots CD. This was followed by a beautifully handling of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” By this time, Winter’s voice was becoming increasingly raspy, and everyone knew it was time for the master to leave the stage for the night. Sure enough, as they exited the stage once again, the lights came on and the PA music started. Everyone started milling out, satiated for the night.

Post show note: At the end of the 90-minute-plus show, as Johnny was getting ready to be led off, a drunken fan who had stood in front the whole performance reached out to shake Johnny’s hand, as he had done with David Gogo, but Johnny moved like the guy wasn’t even there, as he left the stage with some assistance. I ran into the besotted fellow in the bathroom after, as he weaved by the urinal. Ignoring the “don’t talk in the bathroom” protocol (hell, I’m from NYFC), I said, “You know, he didn’t shake your hand because he couldn’t see it. Hope you didn’t take that personal.” Zipping up, he slurred, “Nah, man, it’s totally cool. Johnny’s the man.”

Across town, Selena Gomez was playing to a huge, sold out audience in an arena. But I was happy to have been in an intimate show with Winter because, yes, Johnny’s the man.

Set List:
1. Intro Jam
2. Hideaway (Freddie King)
3. Sugar Coated Love (Jay Miller)
4. She Likes To Boogie Real Low (Johnny Winter)
5. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (Sonny Boy Williamson)
6. Got My Mojo Workin’ (Preston Foster)
7. Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry)
8. Black Jack (Ray Charles)
9. Tore Down (Freddie King)
10. Lone Wolf (Johnny Winter)
11. Don't Take Advantage of Me (Lee Baker Jr.)
12. Gimme Shelter (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards)
13. Boney Maronie (Larry Williams)
14. It’s All Over Now (Bobby and Shirley Womack)
15. Dust My Broom (Robert Johnson)
16. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Dedicated to JW, John Lappen, and Helen Francos on her 85 birthday (RIP)

Bonus Video: (same group as this tour)


  1. Bummer? What the hell are ya talking about, dude? Could you BE more vague? The show was great. Johnny was great. The sound was great. Please clarify your comment by bringing it up the abstraction ladder a few notches. Thanks.