Review Summary: Blues with Balls
What do you look for when you listen to a blues record? Is it great guitar playing with interesting licks? Is it comfort and solace when somebody has mistreated you? Is it curiosity to discover the roots of you favorite genre of music? Surely, you will definitely find a lot of excellent guitar licks, you’ll find comfort but most of all blues is all about emotions. It’s about listening to grown men or women telling stories about how they were mistreated, abused, taken advantage or harmed by people of the opposite sex most of the times. What really separates the blues though from other genres and artists that simply whine or bitch about how everything is awful and without hope, is that the blues aren’t depressing per se. The blues convey a sense of pride to the listener. They communicate that pain and anguish are indeed part of our lives and as such cannot be avoided. However, those dreadful feelings can be put in context through music in order to relieve their symptoms and this is what the blues is all about. It’s about music taking away the pain and as such the blues are all about pride and empowerment.
Whenever a discussion about the blues is started, there are people who tend to support that only the original blues players had what was needed and all those who came after them were simply faux. The reason most times seems to be that blues players from the 60s onwards added few rock elements to their sound and as a result strayed away from the original sound. Another argument is that the OG’s music was much more emotional. In Johnny Winter’s case I can assure you that there aren’t many more emotional players around and he has all those elements that the older statesmen of blues possessed. Unlike most guitar players around, Johnny Winters uses a thumb pick; a guitar playing technique that was developed by early country and blues musicians. To the untrained ear, this doesn’t make much difference but it certainly helps Winter with his soloing. Johnny Winter, as can be demonstrated by his self titled release, is one of the most technical bluesmen combining tasty licks with fiery solos. And talking about the Johnny Winter
album, it has to be noted that apart from the fiddler himself, some exceptional musicians such as his brother Edgar who handles the keyboards and even the legendary Willie Dixon on acoustic bass have provided some brilliant arrangements. Johnny Winter’s sophomore release came one year after his successful debut The Progressive Blues Experiment
and a couple of months prior to his appearance on the Woodstock Festival.
Musically Johnny Winter
is similar to his debut, meaning that it contains generous doses of well played electric and acoustic blues from the main scenes of the genre. However, what separated this album and in general all of Winter’s releases back then is that he did all that with a hard rock wrapping. Nevertheless, purists don’t need to be discouraged at all because the soul of the blues is very much present on Winter’s self titled release. Take for example one of the standouts of this album, “Be Careful With a Fool”. Originally performed by BB King, Johnny Winter adds his personal touch by adding an extra grittiness to the song with his hard and precise playing. Naturally as a BB King tune, “Be Careful with a Fool” is a Chicago/Memphis tune as is “Mean Mistreater” with its typical and intentional 50s blues sound. Going back to what was mentioned in the beginning of this review, the blues aren’t always downbeat and depressing and a perfect example of that is “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. A well known song originally by Sonny Boy Williamson, it was firstly recorded pre-war and has been covered numerous times with Junior Wells’ rendition being probably the most renowned (appropriately may I add). One of my all time favorites, it’s one of the most uptempo tracks of the album and a perfect example of how anguish can be expressed in a rather buoyant manner.
Going back to the acoustic side of the album, “When You Got a Good Friend” is one of Robert Johnson’s most well known and loved songs. Covered by Eric Clapton too, Johnny Winter does an excellent job of keeping the feeling of the original and adds his personal touch with some excellent slide guitar playing. His decision to not stray away much from the original is a wise one. Another Delta song is “Dallas”, an original composition by Johnny Winter that could have easily been mistaken for an original Mississippi blues tune. Being a Texas native himself, Johnny Winter has included three blues tracks from his birthplace. ” I’m Yours and I’m Hers “, “Leland Mississippi Blues” which is an original composition by Winter, with its guitar playing that follows the vocal line and “Back Door Friend” a raw and dirty acoustic turned electric Lightnin’ Hopkins tune are excellent examples of Winter’s ability to cover all styles of the blues. In addition, one of the standout tracks if there is such in an album like this one is “I’ll Drown in My Tears”. It features one of Winter’s most emotional vocal deliveries ever. Brass instruments and piano dominate this song while you can feel BB King or even Ray Charles’ influence in Winter’s music. Lastly, the production which was done by Winter himself with the help of the great Eddie Kramer suits perfectly the overall mood of the album.
Objectively and as a fan of the blues, the only drawback that I can find on this album is its short duration. At only 34 minutes, it always leaves you asking for more but that alone cannot take away any of the magic of this album. For blues fans this is a must whereas for fans of hard rock or blues rock this is an album that should at least be listened once in your lifetime. It will make you realize why Johnny Winter is truly a legend and an often underrated guitar player.