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Published: 2014/04/13
by Ron Hart

Johnny Winter
True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story

Columbia-Legacy

Growing up “special needs” with crossed eyes and perhaps the most famous case in albinism in American medicine surely wasn’t a winning hand dealt to Johnny Winter.
But at 70 years young, he can look back on a career still in full swing where he overcame all odds to become a man Leslie West of Mountain hails as “the Picasso of blues guitar”.

In a time when the roots of the blues were being transformed by the British Invasion, Winter buzzed through the fanfare of his English contemporaries like a crosscut saw with a forcefulness and attack bearing sharper teeth than such fellow stateside comrades of the art as Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield. His style was a straight-up shotgun blast of tube amp tempestuousness, as gutrot raw as the men he grew up emulating as a kid playing the rec room of the local children’s hospital near his hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Namely one Mr. Muddy Waters, whom Winter helped make the twilight of the blues giant’s career so special with the trio of albums he produced for him in the late 70s (those being 1977’s Hard Again, 1978’s I’m Ready and 1981’s King Bee ).

It would be awesome to see an anthology from those Muddy sessions turn up one day. But in the here and now, the spotlight shines directly on the ghost white guitar god celebrated on this amazing four-disc set.

With the strange omission of material from the underrated Winter of ’88 LP notwithstanding, True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story offers the most comprehensive overview of Winter’s 45 year career ever assembled, pulling from his vast cache of studio and live material he’s recorded for Columbia, Blue Sky, Alligator, Point Blank and, most recently, veteran metal label Megaforce Records. Disc one focuses on his late-60s beginnings kicking off with two of the best cuts off his debut album, 1969’s Progressive Blues Experiment, in the one-two combo of “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Mean Town Blues” before shifting tears with four cuts apiece from his “other” 1969 debut Johnny Winter (namely “Mean Mistreater” featuring heroes Willie Dixon and Walter “Shakey” Horton) and its powerhouse 1970 follow-up Second Winter (“Memory Pain”, anyone?). Meanwhile, choice live material from appearances at the Fillmore East in 1968 (his New York debut, introduced to the crowd by the aforementioned Mr. Bloomfield), Woodstock and a 1970 gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall (originally included on the bonus CD from the Legacy Edition of Second Winter) offers a glimpse of his primal first years on the national stage.

Classic concert audio largely dominates the second disc of True to the Blues. A pair of previously unreleased versions of “Eysight for the Blind” and “Prodigal Son” from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival kicks things off before diving into the two essential live LPs from Winter’s early 70s group Johnny Winter And, both of which really need to be reissued in their entireties, Legacy. But in the meantime, the inclusion of killer jams on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo” and a raucous run through the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” are most welcome additions to this collection.

The third CD begins with the three best tracks off Winter’s loudest album Still Alive and Well, a record that truly established the guitarist as a major player in the hard rock game, a notion especially confirmed once you got the likes of “Rock Me Baby” and the blistering title cut screaming in your face. 1974’s John Dawson Winter III and 1975’s Saints and Sinners are also represented here with two cuts each, while highlights from his mid-70s concert collaborations with brother Edgar are represented here with a wild cover of “Harlem Shuffle”, not to mention tracks from Captured Live! from Johnny’s star-making 1976 arena tour and 1977’s Nothing But The Blues, embodied here via a great take on Big Joe Turner’s “TV Mama” and a pair of mindblowing jams with Muddy Waters and harp master James Cotton (“Walkin’ Thru The Park” and “I Done Got Over It”).

The fourth set is dedicated to boiling down the last 35 years in the career of Johnny Winter to fit onto an 80 minute CD. And, once again, while the absence of Winter of ’88 material might raise a red flag or two amongst completists, the producers of this set do a handsome job of pulling the highlights from Winter’s 80s, 90s and 00s, punctuated by prime movers like “Nickel Blues” from 1978’s White, Hot and Blue, “Talk is Cheap” off 1980’s Raisin’ Cain, “Mojo Boogie” from 1986’s 3rd Degree and an impassioned duel with Derek Trucks on Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” from his most recent full-length Roots from 2011.

As Johnny Winter looks back at 45 years of overcoming the odds through hard work and impassioned spirit to become quite possibly the truest of the white bluesmen to emerge from American soil, it would be so amazing to see a producer come to him the way he did with Muddy and help usher in the November of his years with a classic album as massive as the body of work featured on this must-have box. Dan Auerbach? Jack White? Rick Rubin? Who’s game?

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