Johnny Winter never fails to please! This icon of all that is good in blues and rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing whether it be scorching rhythms, outstanding melodic leads, or slithery slide was all here to savour and enjoy by this packed house of Johnny Winter fans at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, here in Toronto, Ontario, on Monday, March 26, 2007.
This writer’s personal experience, attending Johnny Winter concerts, goes way back .. to the days when Mr. Winter along with musical sidekick Rick Derringer, packed Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in the early to mid ‘70s.
Winter’s god-given talent on the 6-string guitar is something that is a true blessing to hear and watch live. The title of Johnny’s most recent Grammy-nominated CD, I’m A Bluesman, is totally appropriate in every respect, and was promoted somewhat this night in song and word.
All Johnny has to do is place his hands on the guitar neck, and away he goes, playing some of the most mouthwatering leads that ever rippled off a musical instrument! Johnny is an absolute master of his craft, in his interpretations of classic blues standards like Muddy Waters’ and Willie Dixon’s "Hootchie Cootchie Man", or upbeat rockin’ blues like "It’s All Over Now" and the upbeat instrumental "Hideaway", which he opened with at the Phoenix this night followed by the rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ "Sugar Coated Love". Some of the blues aficianados in the audience, included Brian Blain, who is the editor of Downtown Toronto Jazz and Maple Blues publications, as well as being a talented musician/songwriter himself.
For most of Johnny’s intoxicatingly terrific concert performance this night, he played a vintage dew drop-shaped 'headless' Steinberger guitar, which has been part of his concert equipment for years. He also played his trademark Gibson Firebird that he’s been known by for decades in a lengthy and throughly engrossing encore of slide guitar wizardry. This return to the stage after an amazing show, wowed his avid audience, and demonstrated why Winter is much revered around the world as one of if not the best slide guitarists around.
Johnny has a great band backing him. Scott Spray is featured on electric bass, with Wayne June on drums throughout this delightful 75 minutes of the best high-energy blues around. Wayne was also the superb MC throughout most of Winter’s performance -- introducing songs, and singing some lead vocals at times.
Johnny’s 2nd lead and rhythm guitarist is Paul Nelson. Nelson appeared on stage in the latter half of Winter’s performance, and played some absolutely energizing and inspired leads and rhythms that blew the crowd away. His captivating stage presence added to Winter’s ‘guitar-god’ mystique onstage. Johnny broke his hip while escaping from a fire in his house almost a decade ago, and prefers to sit down while playing guitar these days.
After this concert, Nelson mentioned to this writer, a few earlier guitar sidemen Johnny used to have in his band over the years, before he joined up. This brought to mind guitarist Pat Rush, who used to play rhythm and some slide and lead in Johnny's band in the late '70s, and who until recently was part of the Jeff Healey Band, and is currently with the Jerome Godboo Band, out of Toronto. It would have been an interesting guest appearance if Pat had sat in with Johnny this night in Toronto, after all these years. As an aside, Pat is the only Winter guitarist other than Johnny himself, to play slide on a Winter album ... with "Walkin' By Myself", from Johnny's White Hot & Blue album in 1978.
Johnny walked over to his chair with no help .. and rather quickly as I remember for his encore at The Phoenix. He left the stage the same way at the end of his performance but not without entertaining his fans with Bob Dylan’s classic "Highway 61", as only Winter can play it (on his Firebird) and sing it. His spectacular slides and leads and his own amazing vocals, help make Johnny’s the definitive version of this Dylan classic.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make it for the opening act, who happened to be the always entertaining Scott Holt Band. I’ve seen Scott’s awesome blues band in Toronto on a previous occasion or two (with Gary Kendall of the Downchild Blues Band, on bass) at Blues On Bellair, where a packed house oohed and awed this magnificent guitarist’s talent in the blues. Scott was blues legend Buddy Guy’s right hand man on guitar for years, until he chose to lead his own blues band in 2000.
Fans I talked to after the show, who saw Scott’s performance opening for Johnny this night at the Phoenix, were full of praise, raving that "The Scott Holt Blues Band put on an amazing show!"
I’ve been listening to Scott’s personal compilation of his previous five CD’s, that he gave me after the show Monday night. The variety of blues on this CD, makes me wish all the more that I had not missed his great band this night. Scott will be back sometime soon I’m sure, and his upcoming CD he nicknames ‘Project X’, should be a real treat for blues lovers everywhere!
In regards to crowd reaction, this packed house of Johnny Winter fans roared their undying approval in unison for each and every song the Johnny Winter Band played. This is the way an old fashioned rock and blues concert used to happen but rarely does anymore. They were on their feet in the Art Nouveau balcony, as well as on the main floor throughout this Winter concert. Their unrestrained outpouring of love and appreciation for Johnny Winter’s extremely entertaining guitar playing this night, was like old times, when Winter packed Maple Leaf Gardens here in Toronto, and other large concert venues indoors and outdoors, in his heyday in the early to mid ‘70s. The fans’ reaction made it seem like Winter’s heyday never ended .. which maybe it didn’t!
This outpouring of affection for Mr. Winter, felt good to experience in this writer’s soul, and is surely an invigorating tonic for the heartstrings, that will hopefully keep Johnny Winter and his very fine blues band ‘rockin’ in the free world’ (as Neil Young puts it), for all to appreciate for many years to come.