B.B. King Blues Club, June 19, 2002:
I take the early train into Manhattan and hurry up to the club, expecting a crowd, and there is none. I wait outside, by myself, and then I go downstairs to the bar. I meet a fellow Johnny Winter fan, Ken, from Asbury Park, New Jersey. As Ken & I chat at the bar, other Johnny Winter fans arrive and queue up in front of us, downstairs. I am now number ten in line. I am on the guest list thanks to Ariel Publicity. Ken & I go in together and sit together. Ken is a major Deadhead and a former roadie, who is now settled down with three children: ages 11, 13, and 17. His 13 year old is a guitar player. Ken & I strike up a nice friendship on our trip here to see Johnny.
The show is now sold out and every table is filled. We are extremely stage left but still in the front row of tables. Two other concert goers join us: John Moody from Medford, Mass. who’s in town to see B.B. King and says, “This show is a must” and James Alvizo from Brooklyn. James just started playing guitar and bought an Ibenez guitar for his first guitar. Serena serves us, the service is first class as always, and the food is tremendous.
The first band is on stage at 7:30 P.M. The group is called Janah, and they are from Atlanta. The group has a totally Middle Eastern sound. The instrumentation and arrangements are both geared to that musical mode: a highly percussive style with sitar, flute, guitar, bass, percussion and drums. The band’s attack level is super intense and basically never lets up. All the musicians are extremely proficient with this musical style. The band does not introduce any of their songs, so it is impossible to beak it down by that standard.
Directly in front of me is what I thought was a table with candles on it, but I am sadly mistaken. It is a speaker section in disguise, a loud and threatening bass speaker at that. Although I was clearly here first on line, my lollygagging now has me sitting on the extreme stage left, with a speaker up my wazoo. I can feel the bass notes and bass drum vibrate on my arm, quite amazing.
Janah is a quality band of fine musicians. I sense that the middle eastern song content is a little out of context with the strong American heritage of Johnny Winter’s southern country blues style. This does not seem to be a good match tonight. Janah plays well and shows plenty of charisma, but just doesn’t sit well with this New York audience. People are politely applauding for quite a while, then when it seems to be just a little too long and a little too much the more expressive audience members start shouting: Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter, over and over. As the technicians break down the equipment for Janah, they take away the freakin’ bass speaker that’s been blowin’ me right out of here, HOORAY!!!
Johnny Winter comes on stage at 8:59 P.M. Johnny has a cane and is helped on stage by two assistants. Johnny is frail and shaking. Father time has not been kind to Johnny. Gone is the brash, outrageous, growling Johnny I saw at his Fillmore East debut on February 14, 1969, with Sam & Dave. Gone is the slinky, dastardly, daring Johnny of the “Guitar Slinger” tour of 1984. Johnny Winter is very courageous in the face of obviously, extremely failing health.
The first two songs are both instrumental boogie blues. Johnny’s playing is difficult and slow. But fearless Johnny will not be deterred. Song three is much stronger with lead vocals and lead guitar playing improving markedly. Now I see Johnny Winter’s old guitar licks coming through again: come on Johnny, come on !!!!!!!
Song four is titled, “What Ya’ Gonna Do.” This is a strong rock & roll tune with phrasing tempo stops for dynamic effect. Johnny's current band is pictured below. From left to right they are: Johnny Winter (guitar & vocals), James Montgomery (harmonica & vocals), Wayne June (drums & vocals) and Scott Spray on bass.
The next tune is called, “Good Time Charlie.” Johnny is having obvious tremors. I am distraught with concern for Johnny’s health. The harmonica player, James Montgomery, takes a tasteful lead vocal on this tune. It is so unusual to see anyone else but Johnny sing lead vocals. The next number is a slow blues called, “How Lucky Can One Man Be.” Gone are the super flashy extended lead runs that never seemed to end, with the growls added for effect. His leads are slow and deliberate, tasteful and well phrased, but it’s just not the same Johnny. I should be very glad, he’s even here to play for us at all, and for that I am extremely thankful!!! The double time tempo from the drummer drives Johnny to some inspirational blues playing for the latter part of this tune. Johnny finally gets rolling and seems to get hot. Song seven features the drummer, Wayne June, on lead vocals. He has an unusual style that is very animated. Johnny exhibits some of his best lead playing here. Now were seeing some of the old Johnny.
The next musical entry is a rocker, “That’s A Woman.” Johnny takes a good lead break, tasteful and accurate. Song nine is one of my old Muddy Water favorites, popularized by Sam Lay of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: “Got My Mojo Workin’.” Johnny is pumped up and inventive here.
The next tune features the harp player on vocals, James Mongomery, playing another old favorite, “Mona.” This tune is lively and spirited. Johnny is on rhythm guitar and James wails on the harmonica.
Song eleven is called, “Johnny Guitar.” This is an upbeat blues rocker. Johnny Winter plays good guitar and sings well here also. Yeah Baby !!!
Johnny thanks the crowd and is helped off the stage. A standing ovation and loud continuous cheers bring him back for an encore. He is helped back to the chair and plays an upbeat rock instrumental, featuring unison 'lick' playing with the bassist, Scott Spray. There is a long and excellent harmonica solo by James Montgomery. This last song is really kickin’.
Johnny Winter puts on a good show here tonight. He plays fearlessly and with true abandon. I am very lucky to see the great Johnny Winter play that guitar again, maby for the last time. I’ve always admired Johnny’s style as better than Clapton, Page or Beck, no matter what anyone else says. He has a natural Texas country blues style that no one else can ever emulate. Ride on Johnny !!!!!!
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