Thursday, April 28, 2016

DVD Review: Johnny Winter with Dr. John – Live in Sweden 1987

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Johnny Winter with Dr. John: Live in Sweden 1987
Produced and directed by Leninart Wetterholm
Gazell Records AB / MVD Visual
59 Minutes, 1987 / 2016

It will soon be two years since Johnny Winter shed his mortal coil and went to join the other blues rock guitarists that both preceded him, and others that left after. Boogie blues musician Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) is still with us at age 75, though he only appears on a bit more than half of this DVD, which is probably why they call this With, although the original program was And. But I jump ahead of myself.

There is a brief pre-show overdub interview with Winter talking about the effect of Blues in his life and what it means to play it, over footage of the band preparing to perform for a Swedish television broadcast. What is especially nice is that you know the sound quality is going to be good as it could be controlled better in a recording studio at that point, rather than an auditorium. There definitely is a graininess to the visual, probably originally recorded on PAL format and transferred to either direct to digital, or to VHS and then digital. That being said, this DVD looks better than most of the leaked videos I’ve seen so far, so I’m going to assume it was taken from the PAL master. Also, being television of then rather than now, the image is square to fit the old-style tubes, rather than widescreen, as is used nowadays.

When I saw Winter play live at Louie’s in Saskatoon in 2011, he sounded great if a bit detached, but looked pretty bad, being mostly blind by then, and pale in both skin and spirit (even beyond his albinism); yet even here in 1987, he looks skeletal at best, like you could knock him over with a deep breath. At the 3:45 mark, it even seems like an audience member appears to be miming that he seems like he’s near demise.

Everything is stripped down on this show, from Winter’s weight to the first part of the show being his band made up as just a trio, with Jon Paris (still looking like his Link Ray/Robert Gordon rockabilly phase) on bass and harmonica, and Tom Compton on drums, with Dr. John jumping in towards the middle.

The show starts off strong, with the Winter trio belting out a bluesy version of the zydeco classic “Sound the Bell.” The band has obviously been playing this number a while because they seem quite at ease with it, yet never letting its proverbial throat go throughout. Johnny sways around the stage like he’s caught in a breeze, just shredding his custom black headless Lazer guitar, which he uses for all the songs albeit one.

Lee Baker Jr.’s “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” is pure blues rock, starting with a growl and a strong rhythm pulse. Northern Blues, but definitely with a southern twist, they add some solid rock into the mix towards the end of the song. Switching to his 1963 Gibson Firebird, he swings into a slide version of J.B. Lenoir’s [d. 1967] Son House-meets-Nawleans-style acoustic-gone-electric slow burn boogie Blues of “Mojo Boogie.”

Of course, this song is a perfect way to set up the introduction of Dr. John’s version of the boogie that made him so popular among the Creole set. A few rattling tinkles on the keys, with Winter back on his Lazer, and they break into a Dr. John original, the cheatin’ number, “You Lie Too Much.” The boogie here – er – lies with the piano, though Winter does get his riffs in. Even with the mixing some of styles, they fit like two gloves with fingers intertwined. John does take the lead on the vocals for these numbers, with Winter and Paris doing back-up. For their second song, they equally share Muddy Waters’ upbeat “Sugar Sweet,” alternating verses and licks.

Together yet, they break into the slow burner “Love, Life and Money” (originally recorded by Little Willie John), again share duties by alternating the song, split down the middle, growl for growl.

There needs to be some kind of rave up after a soul pulling number like that, so to rev it up for the finale they cover “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I’ve never seen a Johnny Winter set without at least one Rolling Stones cover, and this is one of his strongest choices. I always wondered if Keef was a bit jealous of Winter’s agility on the fretboard. John and Johnny both sing on the chorus and it’s a not always a pretty blending, but they play it so well, with such gutsy enthusiasm, it’s easily forgivable. Winter prowls the stage especially aggressively on this number (when I saw him, he was chair-bound, which I am assuming he found frustrating, leading to said detachment to the moment), and takes command both vocally and on the solos. That does not surprise, however, as this is one of his tried-and-true numbers over the decades. That’s not to say that Dr. John just sits still, as he adds some really nice fill to the sound.

The real smile-inducer and wow-factor was when Winter played the chords on Paris’ bass while plucking his own guitar, and at the same time Paris played the chords on Winter’s guitar and the plucked the notes on his own bass, as Winter stood behind him with their arms intertwined.

CD version
They go out on this number, which is perfect for a wanting-more moment for the very blond(e) and white audience. What the small crowd here doesn’t get – but we do – is one more in the extras section, which is a live clip from 1972 of Winter and his band playing a clip of Robert Wilkins’s “Prodigal Son.” It sounds great, but looks like it was filmed in 16mm. Still, it’s pleasing to see Winter looking healthy, as well as in better voice for its 2:08 length. It seems to be a promo for his 1970 Johnny Winter And album.

This Swedish show is also released as a CD now, though the extra song is not included. Still worth it.

Johnny Winter: vox/guitar
Tom Compton: drums
Jon Paris: bass

Song List:
Sound the Bell
Don’t Take Advantage of Me 
Mojo Boogie 
You Lie Too Much
Sugar Sweet 
Love, Life and Money 
Jumpin’ Jack Flash 
Prodigal Son 

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