Johnny Winter
Live in NYC '97
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Johnny Winter is like the flu. At the most inappropriate time, just when you think you've reached the apex of coolness, he gets into your bloodstream and takes over. I don't care how conversant you are about the lives of obscure Piedmont rag pickers, there's something about a squint-eyed guy with a shock of platinum hair, a snake-brimmed range hat, Rorschach-tattooed arms and a St. Vitus guitar style that just wins you over.

Now, the albino thunder god's latest, Live in NYC '97, is nothing revelatory. He's gone live before, and if you're looking for his hair-raising Winterized treatments of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and the Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash," you'll have to look elsewhere. This scorching 1997 show, recorded at New York's Bottom Line, is strictly blues -- and if Winter sometimes lapses into obligatory flag wavers like "I Got My Mojo Working," well, as deep into the blues life as he's gone, who's got the right to squawk?

Some facts have got to be faced up front. Winter can play like a crossroads demon, but his singing voice is barely a shade more soulful than Tex Avery's cartoon dog, Droopy. There are moments in this show, like on Ray Charles' "Blackjack," when he sounds about ready to give up the ghost. Winter has always sounded best when, as he did at Dylan's Bobfest show a few years ago, he growls along with his machine-gun guitar licks. There's plenty of growling here, but when his slide licks get high and lonesome, his watery crooning can get hard to take.

The guitar work, on the other hand, is almost always stellar, even if there are times when his glassy lines sound a bit too often like Albert Collins. Stevie Ray Vaughan copped a lot from Collins, too, so who's complaining? The disc hops off with a fresh, fluid version of "Hideaway," then heads off-track with the more rare "Sen-Sa-Shun" and a rote "Mojo."

Then it gets interesting. Winter displays his Texas roots on Frankie Lee Simms' "She Likes to Boogie Real Low." It's the highlight, a cooking boogie number that lopes like an old mule. For the rest of the performance, Winter settles into his slide, groaning through "Blackjack" and then blowing out wonderfully-twisted runs on Jimmy Reed's "The Sun Is Shining" and the Elmore James chestnut, "The Sky Is Crying." Winter dedicates this disc to all his fans. But even for those who consider him an occasional guilty pleasure, Live in NYC has lots to recommend.

-- Steve Braun

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.