I danced like a freak-show in my office after getting the news that, the legendary Johnny Winter would make time for a brief interview before hitting the stage at the Kitchener Blues Festival on August 6th.
In the late eighties I’d gone to see him play at an intimate venue in Toronto. Despite playing well, he appeared to be so frail that I left the show worrying that might be my last time seeing Johnny Winter play live.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I find myself sitting across the table from the 67 year old, stronger-looking blues icon. I can’t begin to convey the emotion that was coursing through me. It took all the control I had not to run around the table and hug him!
Johnny Winter is known as a man of few words. He does most of his talking with his guitar and in his songwriting, but on this very hot, August afternoon, sitting in his comfortably air-conditioned trailer, we found him to be an entertaining, warm, friendly, and happy conversationalist.
We did not discuss the pending lawsuit against the estate of his former manager. We did not discuss substance abuse, or other health issues. We didn’t talk about the intensity of the upcoming tour.
We talked about music, and he seemed very happy and at ease doing so.
I really appreciated his candor when we briefly touched on the “rock years”. Following advice from his former manager, he played more rock than blues. He toured incessantly, filling arenas everywhere, but “wasn’t too happy” about playing rock.
Blues is what makes this man tick.
The thousands of songs on his ipod are all blues. He lit up when he told me about enlisting his wife to scour the internet for all kinds of obscure old blues tracks to add to his vast collection of blues music. In his soft-spoken tone, with his discernable southern drawl, he said that it was “pretty cooooooooool” to have access to so much old blues music on the internet.
If anyone knows “cooool” it’s Johnny Winter.
Over recent years, Johnny has shared some of his licks and riffs releasing several instructional DVDs, books and CDs. When I asked him if he felt that anyone could really teach someone else to play the blues, his answer came immediately.
He conceded that despite being able to share techniques, one cannot teach “feel’- and feel is likely the most essential element to playing the blues. One is either blessed enough to be born with the gift of feel, or it is acquired through experience. Johnny believes that his feel is a result of both. Anyone who knows even a little bit about his life and career would have to agree.
There is great excitement around the imminent release of Johnny Winter’s first album in over 7 years, expected September 27th. Aptly named “Roots”, this record is a collection of the songs that he loves and that influenced him and shaped his playing style. Many other superstars of blues play on “Roots” including Derek Trucks, John Popper, Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Jimmy Vivino, Susan Tedeschi, John Medeski and Johnny’s brother, Edgar Winter.
Those of us lucky enough to catch Johnny Winter’s set at the Kichener Blues Festival enjoyed a sneak preview of a few of the songs from the new album. They played a scorching set to an enthusiastic crowd who had lined up for hours to try to catch a glimpse of the living legend. Once the venue was at capacity, the crowd spilled all around the venue….just being able to be a part of the magic and listen to the icon play was an honor for the hundreds that listened in the streets.
The band was tight and Johnny sang and played beautifully, looking happy to be on stage. The audience smiled, cheered, danced and celebrated Johnny Winter and his music.
I guess sometimes the Blues does have a happy ending.