Saturday, August 18, 2012

DVD Review: Johnny Winter: Live from Japan; John Lee Hooker: Cook with the Hook Live in 1974

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

John Lee Hooker – Cook with the Hook: Live in 1974
Directed by Bob Boyd
MVD Visual,
45 minutes, 1974 / 2012

Mississippi-Delta Blues musician John Lee Hooker (d. 2001) was one of the bigger influences in the blues rock movement of the ‘60s, a definite link between, say, Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton. His driving rhythms and vocal intensity was different than many of the other blues players of the time, who were closer to early rock’n’roll than Sgt. Pepper’s period rock. Hooker’s improvisational fierceness and hypnotic repetitions made him the forefront of what would become the Yardbirds (all three incarnations), Cream, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few.

There are a number of items on the checklist that makes this document so important, both directly and indirectly to Hooker. Public access television was just becoming a glimmer on the horizon when this was shot on July 6, 1974, during the Down in the Dumps music festival in Gardner, Massachusetts. Its faded black and white image (most with a white line going through it, possibly from the playback heads scratching the video as it went through an early tape player (reel-to-reel is my guess, as it was pre-VHS) is reminiscent of early kinescope (look it up). But despite the washed-out jeans look, the sound is solid, if a little on the tinny side (ah, technology and its Faustian bargains…).

Though nearly a decade before the advent of MTV-style quick cuts that would revolutionize the way we view film editing, the line producer here jumps between the three cameras quickly (sometimes too much so) between Hooker from the mostly long-haired and shaggy audience. Way ahead of its time in both video usage and use of the fader bars. I wonder if any of the rest of the festival’s music will resurface. Fortunately, Hooker’s has now, and that is just fine.

Backed by the Coast to Coast Blues Band (who would do so for 30 years), Hooker sits front and center (much like Johnny Winter does now), showing some rock chops with the likes of the great “Boom Boom” and “Sweet, Sweet Thing.” There’s also some solid Delta blues, of course, with the likes of “It Serves You Right to Suffer” and “Whiskey and Women.” For the last number of his set, listed as “Boogie,” Hooker stands up and roams the stage a bit. The band plays the same riff over and over while Hooker improvs for over 16 minutes. Honestly, I would rather he would have played some set numbers, because it is just a bit too much of a ramble for that long a period.

After this number, Hooker leaves the stage and a very enthusiastic emcee brings him back, where he actually continues the same number (listed as “Medley” for some reason, rather than “Reprise”) for another five minutes.

At the end of the set, the unseen announcer excitedly shouts out, “A man in his fifties! Imagine that! …And he’s doing rock’n’roll!” I heard this in a kind of bemusement as I realize that Johnny Winter, a version of the Who, and even the Zombies are still out there touring into their 60s and 70s. As the camera quickly pans the hippie-ish / stoner-looking audience, it was, indeed, hard to imagine someone of his generation could still give the guitar a hard lickin’. To put it in perspective, when he died at age 83, he was just about to tour Europe.

This DVD comes with an informative sheet with liner notes written by Massachusetts rock and cable television historian Joe Viglione that is worth checking out, as well.

Set List:
It Serves You Right to Suffer (Hooker)
Sweet, Sweet Thing
Boom Boom
Whiskey & Women

Johnny Winter: Live from Japan
Directed by Kiyoshi Inasawa
MVD Visual
90 min., 2012

I had the incredible fortune to be able to see this tour in Saskatoon last fall, when this same back-up band played nearly the exact set at Louie’s, a club on the University of Saskatchewan campus on October 19, 2011 (reviewed HERE).

While it was a thrilling and amazing night, it was near the end of a very long tour for the troupe, and it was obvious they were tired (and rightfully so). What is nice about this DVD is that it was filmed at the Zepp Tokyo Music Hall on April 15 of the same year, early on in the circuit, in a country that had never seen him perform before. Needless to say, the energy level was higher, the voices were stronger, the music fresher, and all the better for the viewer of this release.

Johnny’s beautiful headless Lazer guitar strikes fire as he sings the blues with a heart that has seen a lot of heartache, and a voice that matches the gravel of the road he’s traveled. Whether covering his own songs, blues classics, or the occasional rocker -mostly at the end of the show, as he’s wont to do and has done since the ‘70s - he seems at home in the rhythms.

The band backing him are certainly up to the task as they prove time and time again, keeping up with the master, who graciously not only co-occupies the stage, but shares it with his brethren, giving them ample opportunity to shine on their own many times. These aren’t some youngsters but seasoned veterans who have traveled with other frontline blues musicians before.

Winter is bent and hobbled, walking in a wracked gait from the side of the stage to center – always shown in long shots or blocked by fans – where he sits for most of the set, and lets his fingers do the pacing. For the last two songs (which is the encore), he brings out his old and battered guitar and uses a slide to keep these blues tunes Delta-fied.

If you’re a fan of versions of the blues, be it rock, Chicago, Texas, or Southern style, well, odds are you are probably on your way by now to get this, if you do not have it already. Winter is a fine example of the product of a lifetime of dedication to a spiritual sound.

The DVD comes with sumptuous booklet with many full color pix and excellent liner notes by Lance Perdue.

Johnny Winter: Vocals/lead guitar
Paul Nelson: Guitar
Scott Spray: Bass
Vito Liuzzi: Drums

Set List:
Hideaway (Freddie King)
She Likes to Boogie Real Low (Johnny Winter)
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (Sonny Boy Williamson)
Got My Mojo Working (Preston Foster)
Johnny B. Goode (the true king of rock’n’roll, Chuck Berry)
BlackJack (Ray Charles)
Tore Down (Freddie King)
Lone Wolf (Johnny Winters)
Don’t Take Advantage of Me (Lee Baker Jr.)
Bonie Maronie (Larry Williams)
It’s All Over Now (Bobby and Shirley Womack)
Dust My Broom (Robert Johnson)
Highway 61 (Bob Dylan)

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