Jackie Hope: Guitar heroes never really die
This year, Winter came on the shortest night of the year, not the longest. The summer solstice brought a couple hours of Winter to Bismarck — Johnny Winter, that is.
Texas blues came to the Belle. Blues: not smooth and mellow like Ella Fitzgerald, but loud and driving, like the Stones when Bill Wyman was still walking the bass with them.
Johnny Winter is a genuine guitar hero. He played Woodstock, for cryin’ out loud. At midnight. That is, like, epic. “Rolling Stone” lists him as one of the 100 greatest guitar players, ever, alongside Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Or Keith Richards, on a good day. Of course, given Keith’s lifestyle, any day he’s still alive is a good day.
The Winter brothers — just good ol’ boys outta Texas, like Dennis and Randy Quaid, only not as cute or jacked. OK, Dennis is the cute and jacked one. Randy, not so much. What is it with Texas? Do they have more per capita coolness than the rest of us, or what? Come to think of it, Meat Loaf is a pastor’s kid from Texas. So Meat is neither cute nor jacked, but he is one heck of a singer, and he came close to winning on the Donald Trump reality series, “The Apprentice.” Not that I ever watched “The Apprentice” or anything. Just heard about it from friends ...
Johnny and his brother Edgar — remember Edgar, and his “They Only Come Out at Night” album? Just say, “Yes,” and humor the Baby Boomer, OK? Johnny and Edgar debuted on local Texas TV when they were tweens, singing Everly Brothers tunes and playing ukuleles. The website www.JohnnyWinter.net, says Johnny’s big break was in 1968 when he played the Fillmore East in New York.
See, those were heady days, if you catch my, uh, drift. Then came the cleverly titled album, “Johnny Winter.” Edgar played keyboard on that one, before he went solo and into R&B fame. Next came Woodstock, and rock ‘n’ roll immortality.
Winter’s blues are a fusion of early rock and progressive blues, which is sorta like prog rock, but not. If you could have put Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones together on a stage, and told them to “do something,” what you got would have been Winter-ish. OK, what you’d actually have gotten would’ve been Chuck and Mick both trying to hog the microphone. But, still ...
If you surf YouTube for Johnny’s signature tunes, you’ll find lots of covers of rock classics: “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and other guitar-heavy hitters. He has performed these so many times in concert, they have become his, by the divine right of guitar heroes.
In fact, his 1971 album, “Live Johnny Winter And,” was chock-a-block full of gems first recorded by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Stones. But with only one original Johnny Winter composition, “Mean Town Blues.”
What about the stuff Winter himself wrote? An enthusiastic blues-maniac friend counts “Dallas” as one of his faves. It is more Muddy Waters and less Mick Jagger, but it’s a real slice of Texas blues, complete with acoustic guitar and woulda-shoulda-coulda-filled soulful lyrics. And you can find that one on YouTube, too, if you are in a blue mood.
But back to Bismarck and the Belle. The front row at the Belle. Because hey, somebody’s gonna sit in the front row, so it might as well be me. ‘Cause if I’mma go to see a concert, I’mma be close enough to really see stuff. And hear stuff. With the speakers those boys brought, you could have heard Johnny all the way at the Denny’s across from the Civic Center. There was a suggestion, as we were leaving the concert, that the roadies figured we were all aging Boomers who had experienced hearing loss. Well, if not before the concert, then certainly after it.
And there, onstage, was a veteran of Woodstock, a collaborator with Muddy Waters, a living legend of guitar wizardry. He opened with “Johnny B. Goode,” got our “Mojo Workin’” for a standing ovation, and did an extended version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with improv riffs to rip out your heart and burn off your face.
Johnny had his Gibson guitar plugged into a pre-Whovian vintage, 1960-ish amp and speaker combination with a microphone in front of its speaker. Old school cool, baby! And yeah, maybe his fingers moved a little slower, and maybe he had to sit down to perform, and maybe his voice was more gravel road and less smooth highway. But there was mojo in the music and the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” wildman was still there.
Because guitar heroes never really die. Their music is the heartbeat of our generation and the inspiration for generations to come.