Friday, June 19, 2009

Still alive and well (in a way)

Johnny Winter
The Ark, Ann Arbor

June 17, 2009

Way back in the early 1970s, Johnny Winter put out an album titled Still Alive and Well as an answer to all of the fans and critics who'd speculated that his heroin addiction had ruined him. Back then he was still Handsome Johnny, an imposing and spectacular stage presence with flowing albino white hair and long, elegant fingers that appeared to be extensions of the electric blues-rock guitar riffs and solos that blew his audiences away. A cover of Dylan's "Highway 61" became his signature song, much more so than "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," and it (like all of his songs) was delivered in a deep growl, a voice wrapped just as fiercely around lyrics as those fingers were around the guitar neck.

That was then.

Today, Johnny Winter is 65 years old, still alive but no longer well, his health gone beyond "failing" to "failed." The Woodstock-era legend can barely walk, he is almost completely blind, and he performs sitting down. But damn, can that boy play guitar!

If you close your eyes and just listen, Johnny Winter live in concert treats you to a 70-minute extended guitar solo — a feat that would set the fingertips of younger musicians bleeding. And the notes you hear are precise, intentional, organic; there's no Yngwie Malmsteen speed just for the sake of a chromatic onslaught at the expense of musicality. Johnny has played these songs ten thousand times, and he never looks down at the fretboard; each of his fingers finds each of its notes effortlessly and naturally, supported by the steady and capable backing of Vito Liuzzi on drums, Paul Nelson on second guitar, and Scott Spray on bass.

Johnny Winter in the 1970s

Which, basically, is the problem. Without any kind of stage presence now, the frail white-haired man with the faded tattoos (that look disturbingly like bruises now) is only a long-fingered hand on a fretboard. His voice can no longer growl, and every song is sung in a high, thin, airy style that's the exact opposite of what fans of the old hits like "Red House" and "Bony Maronie" remember hearing. And so what happens is, the show actually starts to become sort of... boring. It feels disloyal and mean — this is a rock and blues legend on the stage! — but there's no other word to describe it. The only member of the band with any actual stage presence is bassist Spray, using the long neck of his instrument as a symphony conductor's baton and gesturing with real admiration toward the seated musician after each song, encouraging the audience to show its appreciation.

Who knows, maybe the growing, unwelcome, and uncomfortable sense of boredom is why, almost exactly at the 60-minute mark, Johnny suddenly stands up, shuffles off to the side of the stage, and stands for a minute while the audience realizes that... the show has just ended, and it's time to demand an encore. Johnny is right there, still clearly on stage, but at the edge, and you realize something else: he's there because it would be just too physically taxing for him to walk all the way back to the dressing room and wait for the audience to build up a genuine desire for an encore. So, this strange and sad charade will have to do, and less than a minute later the man is back on his chair, where a new guitar is delivered to him and the guitarist slips a silver metal tube over his little finger.

The audience knows what this means. The place erupts with wild applause even before the feeble voice says "Time for a little 'Highway 61.'" The performance is blazing — reedy vocals don't matter, this one's all about the guitar — and it ends with a building crescendo of high notes and thundering bass, Scott Spray lifting his instrument toward the ceiling, playing the electric as an upright, and Johnny's slide moving up the guitar neck higher and higher until there's nowhere else to go.

Any sense of boredom is forgotten; the encore has kicked the audience's ass and made its ears bleed a little, in a really good and satisfying way. And with that, an elderly albino bluesman who was once a strapping and fit young guitar hero leans forward to the mic, says "Thank you, goodnight," and exits the stage for real.

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