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Monday, Aug. 11, 2008

Johnny Winter Promises an Evening of "Just Blues"

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   One would think that a 64-year-old blues musician who performs sitting down due to ongoing recovery from a hip broken in 2000 wouldn't be hard to track down. But it took several weeks and numerous trans-Atlantic phone calls before Johnny Winter finally surfaced in a club in a suburb of Rome, Italy.

   Winter and his three-piece backup band were on the last leg of a southern European tour, having just finished a late-night set performed before what the Albino blues guitarist thought was a fairly reserved crowd.

   "I think all blues fans are about the same, but the Italians seemed more subdued than U.S. fans," said Winter, whose tour took him throughout Spain and Italy. "Spanish fans are a little more demonstrative."

   After more than 40 years on the road and a career colored by both hard knocks and critical accolades, Winter is used to all kinds of fans for his brand of Texas roadhouse blues. Few white guitarists have made the same mark that Winter has in the largely African-American genre, and he brings his classic style back to the states with an August 15 date at Milwaukee's Turner Hall.

   Now considered a vintage blues artist, Winter is one short step away from personal idols like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. For many he is the last of a breed of originals in a genre in which, he says, many younger players lack the necessary heart and soul that those early performers brought to the stage. Winter likes guitarists Derek Trucks, nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, and fellow veteran Magic Slim, but he's skeptical about some of the other current artists.

   "I don't think the blues are as good as they used to be," said Winter, who as a Beaumont, Texas teen traded his clarinet first for a ukulele and then, at his father's advice, a guitar. "Some of the new artists aren't as true to the blues than they might be."

   Winter's opinion may be due to his exposure to many of the founding blues artists, or perhaps a personal lifestyle some might see as similar to that of the classic bluesman. Winter, along with his brother and fellow musician Edgar Winter, recently in Milwaukee as part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, knocked around east Texas during the mid-1960s in a variety of different bands before two writers from Rolling Stone introduced the guitarist to readers as part of a 1968 article on the Texas music scene. Fame, a six-figure Columbia Records deal and critical acclaim followed. Winter soon found himself jamming with contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, as well as performing with idols Freddie King and Muddy Waters, who themselves benefited from the blues revival Winter was helping spearhead.

   As music tastes changed, the inevitable down years followed, marked by reports of suicidal depression, heroin and alcohol addiction. Allegations of mismanagement and a multi-million lawsuit against the estate of former manager Theodore "Teddy" Slatus, who attempted to keep Winter drug-dependent, thus more easily controllable, paint a story of tragic proportions. Like his heroes, however, the Texas bluesman survived and, in fact, is undergoing a bit of a revival as blues once again move toward the forefront of popularity.

   "I love the feeling I get from the blues. I love the emotion," said Winter, finishing dinner after one of his final European performances. "All music has emotion, but the blues have it the most."

   That emotion is likely to hit the Turner Hall stage when the four-piece band runs down a litany of familiar blues numbers, including "Blackjack," "Tore Down," "Red House," "It's All Over Now," "Johnny Guitar" and, of course, "Highway 61 Revisited." There also will be a few rock 'n' roll numbers, but it will mostly be a night of "just blues," Winter says.

   Despite a life on the road, Winter, who now lives in Connecticut, no longer likes to travel. "Flying is a real pain," he says. "I wish I could play all my gigs around home, but I can't and I love to play."

   Chances are Winter will play the blues until he dies which, at certain points in his life, didn't seem that far off. He's in recovery now, but like all blues artists he knows that life is a fleeting thing and you never know when you're going play your last note.

   "When I go I just want to be thought of as a good bluesman," Winter says, "I think that's the best epitaph a person can have."

Johnny Winter plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m.

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