It’s no secret that we’re big blues fans here at B&V. We’ve even published a playlist of our favorite blues songs done by rock artists, a playlist still in high rotation here in the B&V labs. All of the great rock n roll I love is really built on a foundation of the blues: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream to name but a few. The blues always has a great beat, impassioned vocals and a great guitar solo. All of that translated very well to the rock idiom. “The blues had a baby and they called it rock n roll.” One of the great blues guitarists out there who I’ve always dug but oddly never owned a ton of his stuff was Johnny Winter who passed away in 2014 at the age of 70 years old. While I never owned a ton of Johnny’s stuff, I have been listen to and a fan of his for a long time. With his skinny frame, white-blonde hair and albino skin he was, in my mind, an iconic guitarist. While he may be predominantly known for the blues I’ve always thought of him as more blues/blues rock.
I feel like Johnny Winter should be better known. He hailed from Texas. By the time he was 10 he was playing guitar in bands with his younger brother Edgar (more on him later). He really hit the national scene in 1969 and was hailed as the “next Hendrix.” The hype was pretty big. While he never really lived up to that he fashioned a great blues/blues rock career. He had some great albums: his 1969 eponymous debut, Second Winter, Johnny Winter And, and with his multi instrumentalist brother Edgar Together – Live. His cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61” is almost as iconic as the original. I have always loved his Stones’ covers “Stray Cat Blues” and “Silver Train” to name only two. Johnny played at Woodstock, for god’s sake, why isn’t he a household name? Some of my favorite work by Johnny was when he resurrected Muddy Waters’ late career by producing and playing on a trio of great LPs.
Johnny’s younger brother Edgar followed a similar career path. He played keyboards, saxophone and I understand it, pretty much anything he picked up. After playing with Johnny early on he struck out on his own. He had a couple of really big hits in the 70s, “Free Ride” and the instrumental “Frankenstein” (what a riff). He joined brother Johnny on a live LP but afterwards really became more known as a session musician. I was surprised and thrilled to see that eight years after his death Edgar has put together a guitar extravaganza tribute LP to his late brother. Who better to memorialize the great Johnny Winter but Edgar? Between listening to the new Chili Peppers and cranking up Rush’s Moving Pictures 40th Anniversary Edition, I’ve been jamming on this album almost constantly.
Tribute LPs can be a tricky endeavor. They can be really scattershot depending who is involved. Different artists and their styles can pull in wildly varied directions and fray the cohesiveness of the album. Brother Johnny avoids that trap for a couple of reasons. The level of talent Edgar managed to recruit to this thing. From Joe Bonamassa to Billy Gibbons to Warren Haynes, Edgar recruited topnotch guitar players who obviously respect and perhaps revere Johnny’s music/playing. The tunes are in good hands here. The second reason this thing holds together so well is the nature of the songs – it’s the blues. Whether it’s a full band rave up or an acoustic, front porch strummer these tracks all have that blues cohesion. The whole album holds together extremely well. The album literally makes me feel like I’ve driven down the highway to some hidden roadhouse for a blues jam where girls in cut off jeans and cowboy boots shuffle around the floor. Edgar does a lot of the singing and I thought perhaps he’d do all of it but that’s not the case. Many of these tracks are duets.
The aforementioned Joe Bonamassa shows up on the opening track and he gets things off to a roaring start on “Mean Town Blues.” When I heard the way he was torturing that guitar my head snapped up and I stared, open mouthed at the speaker. He shows up for a second track later on the LP, “Self Destructive Blues” and it’s another barn burner. Joe sings lead on that one. I heard Joe play live and he did a track each from Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and he killed it. He made each track his own and yet paid homage to those great former Yardbirds. That was truly ballsy.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd shows up on a catchy as hell rockin’ blues “Alive And Well.” Edgar sings and snarls his ass off on that one. Shepherd shows up later for a rollicking “Highway 61” later on the LP as well. Keb Mo’ does a great acoustic blues track “Lone Star Blues.” Keb’s vocal is as tasty as Texas brisket. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, another Texas great guitar player shows up with former Allman Brother Derek Trucks on the down and dirty “I’m Yours And I’m Hers.” Only in the 60s/70s are you gonna find a song like that one. “You know I’m yours and hers, somebody else’s too…” I don’t think the Rock Chick would allow that sorta thing. Billy sings but the track is guitar heaven with Derek playing too. There’s more guitar fire power on this song than anybody than, well, the Allman Brothers.
“Johnny B. Goode” is a treat with Edgar and none other than Eagle Joe Walsh trading lead vocals. Joe’s guitar playing is as exceptional as ever. The most shocking track on the album, at least to me, is when Micheal McDonald, yes the ex Doobie Brother, takes lead vocal on “Stranger.” Walsh is still on board to play lead and Ringo Starr is on drums. It’s less bluesy and doesn’t fit completely with the rest of the album stylistically but damn if it isn’t a great, great song. Joe’s guitar solo is mind blowing. Steve Luthaker plays on “Rock N Roll Hoochie Koo” a track Johnny did prior to it being a hit for it’s writer Rick Derringer. Doyle Bramhall II does the slow burn, acoustic “When You’ve Got a Good Friend.” I’ve been a fan of Doyle’s since the Arc Angels. Another Allman Brothers’ alum, Warren Haynes shows up for the crunchy blues track “Memory Pain.”
There is so much to like on this record. I didn’t hear a single dud on this album. It’s a great tribute to Johnny Winter and a testament to the power of his music and the blues in general. If you like the blues or hell, if you just like great guitar, turn this one up… maybe get a pint of Southern Comfort and dance around… close your eyes and imagine you’re in a great, little roadhouse blues bar. It’s what Johnny would have wanted.
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