Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Johnny Winter - Still Alive and Well

I think that this was the first Johnny Winter album that I ever heard so it still has a special place in my r’n’r heart. While some of his earlier works are strictly blues outings (not that that was a bad thing!), this record offers more variety and shows the many sides of Johnny and his cohorts.

Aided and abetted by the fantastically talented Rick Derringer (who also worked with Johnny’s brother Edgar when not engaging in his own successful solo career), Johnny benefits from Derringer’s writing skills as well as his production help.

Johnny’s prefect tone blasts out of the speakers as he starts his own take on “Rock Me Baby”. His style is so fluid and effortless it is almost hard to digest at times – it just seems too damn good! But despite fighting with his heroin addiction for years, this record shows Johnny at his peak (in my opinion) vocally and instrumentally. This is superb! He even gives a nod to Hendrix’s version here and there.

Dan Hartman was a member of Edgar Winter’s band and wrote their hit “Free Ride” and his songwriting is showcased in the hard-rockin’ “Can’t You Feel It”. This has a little bit of a blues feel – I think that is inevitable in Johnny’s hands – but is overall a great piece of 70’s head-banging, joyful, hard rock! I defy you to try to keep still while this is playing!

Acoustic guitars come out for Rick Derringer’s “Cheap Tequila”, a nice ballady tune that gives Johnny a chance to prove that he can do more than sing the blues. Derringer was writing terrific songs at this point and this is another great one. Rhythm section Randy Jo Hobbs on bass and Richard Hughes on drums really work together on this and give it some power and nice nuances. Derringer puts in a pretty electric solo and even Todd Rundgren shows up on mellotron!

The first thing that comes to my mind as “All Tore Down” pummels the stereo is “heavy”! Pounding blues rock with a massive amount of power! Johnny writes his own “Rock & Roll” as a “La Grange”-styled blues rocker. Nice energy, exceptional slide playing throughout and, yes, quite rockin’!

Winter takes on two Rolling Stones tunes on this outing, the first being “Silver Train”. As much as I love the Stones, I think that he has pulled out the definitive version of this one. Superb hi-energy, great arrangement, plenty of guitar, fine piano (by Mark Klingman) and Johnny’s sassy singing. A truly wild ride! Damn near the epitome of rock’n’roll!

He takes it down a notch for the country-esque “Ain’t Nothing To Me” (strangely uncredited on the album). Derringer adds atmospheric pedal steal guitar to this tale of drunkenness, lust and murder – the perfect components for a country song! I’m not a big country fan, but this is a great, well-written tune and is given the perfect treatment.

One of Derringer’s best ever songs (right up there with "R’n’R Hootchie Koo”) is “Still Alive and Well” and a prefect vehicle for Winter. Johnny shouts out “come on, let’s do this fucker” and then the group just destroys this riff-rocker! No, this ain’t subtle, but this is fantastic r’n’r! Similar in feel to “…Hootchie Koo”, this was made for JW, down to the somewhat scarily apt lyrics. This is what people are talking about when they rave about 70’s rock’n’roll!

Johnny writes his own acoustic blues (he plays dobro and mandolin here) in “Too Much Seconal”. Oddly, a flute is given the solo spot and that detracts from the song for me – it just doesn’t really seem to fit, though I know that flute was used in the early blues days.

While I don’t know if this version of “Let It Bleed” tops the original, Winter again makes it his own as a hard-edged blues-rocker. His mastery of the slide guitar is evident as he creates another drivin’ masterpiece!

Again, this record is more 70’s rock than traditional blues – though, of course, it is extremely blues-based – but for those who love blues power mixed with amazing 70’s hard rock, check this one out! As Johnny says at the end “goddammit, did that get it or what?!”

I finally got a CD of this release and it has two bonus tracks on it, covers of Little Richard’s “Lucille” and Dylan’s “From a Buick Six”. These were basic tracks recorded for this album but Winter never got around to overdubbing the lead guitar! Funnily enough, I didn’t even notice this on my first listen!

“Lucille” is turned into a rhythm guitar workout and shows how tightly this band worked together, as the bass and drums work around Johnny’s lead. The break actually sounds like a rhythm solo – you almost don’t even miss the blistering lines that you know Winter had in mind for this.

This man was a big Dylan fan and he emulates the original chugging rhythm in “From a Buick Six”, while still making it sound like a JW song. Their singing styles are similar, though Johnny is more guttural blues as opposed to folk, but the phrasing comes natural. I do miss the lead guitar on this one, though, especially with the fantastic slide additions he put in “Highway 61”.

I’ve become a huge Winter fan recently and this record still blows me away!