February 26, 2010

Johnny Winter's thankful he still gets to share the blues

BOB KEYES

— By

Staff Writer

It's a little after 9:30 on Saturday night, and Johnny Winter is right where he's been for most of the past 45 years: backstage with a guitar in hand, getting ready to play.

He takes 10 minutes out of his preparations for a performance at Toad's Place in New Haven, Conn., to talk about his life and career, and to preview the show he'll play at Merrill Auditorium in Portland this Saturday.

''We still do a little rock 'n' roll, but it's mostly the blues,'' said Winter, who turns 66 in February. ''The blues gets bigger and gets smaller from time to time, but it's always there. And it always will be there. Long after I'm gone, I'm sure there are going to be guys doing it, always.''

An iconic figure in the annals of rock and blues, Winter is known for his blistering, ferocious playing style and for his uncompromising commitment to the blues. He's one of the last links to guys like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and James Cotton, and is credited for helping Waters produce two of the blues legend's best late-in-life studio efforts, ''Hard Again'' and ''I'm Ready.''

Winter is an old-timer himself these days, and like Waters before him, has to scratch for relevance in today's cluttered musical landscape. He's thankful for the opportunity to continue to play the music he loves, although he sometimes wishes he didn't have to work as hard as he does.

After a series of dates in New England and New York through February, Winter and his band will head to Italy, Monaco, France, the U.K. and Belgium for shows throughout the month of March. He'll be back in the states and Canada in April, then head south to Brazil in May and to Spain in July.

''We're still doing about 120 gigs a year, pretty much,'' he says. ''I'd like to be playing a little less, I guess. But you take what you can get.''

Saturday's concert is an old-style package show with Winter and his band in the headlining slot. Also on the bill is the James Montgomery Blues Band featuring Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, Johnny A., Barry Goudreau of the band Boston, Grace Kelly and the Uptown Horns.

Winter's latest project is ''Live Bootleg Series Volume 6,'' a collection of rarities and historic tracks from throughout his career.

Released just this week, the CD includes two Winter originals, ''White Line Blues'' with a searing slide guitar, and ''Johnny Guitar,'' which he recorded in the jump-blues tradition.

''Volume 6'' also pays tribute to some of Winter's favorite artists. Among those whose songs he chose to include on the disc are Ray Charles, Freddie King and B.B. King. In old-school tradition, Winter's version of B.B. King's ''It's My Own Fault'' checks in at about 15 minutes.

Winter lives in rural Connecticut these days. Born and raised in Texas, he moved to New York City many years ago, and has stayed up north.

In recent years, he's battled poor health. He broke a hip in a fall, and lately has been playing while seated.

But Winter says fans shouldn't presume that means he's slowing down, or that he's lost his edge -- or his modesty.

''I'm not drinking or taking any drugs. I'm feeling really good, really healthy. And I'm playing about as good as I ever have,'' he says.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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