Johnny Winter is still alive, but, given how gingerly he sauntered to and from The Bear’s Den stage last Friday evening, I’m not sure he’s doing all that well.
His weathered frame appeared ready to keel over at the slightest change in room temperature and his once-potent gift for vocal heartbreak was reduced to a subdued snarl drowned out by his band’s explosiveness.
He bears all the signs of a 69-year-old recovering heroin addict who has persevered through the bleakest miasma of human experience only to reaffirm his position as one of the industry’s greatest living guitarists. Only someone whose entire professional life has been a Sisyphean struggle to find peace could play the blues with such devastating exigency, so Winter approaches every note as if it were his last.
That being said, I found his latest stop at the Seneca Niagara Casino to be a triumph of will, because his passion for performing has never faded, and he probably would have checked out long ago if not for his intrinsic yearning to exorcise his demons through music.
Like scores of legends before him, his fidelity to the muse keeps him afloat, making any chance of a tranquil existence away from the stage feel like a pipe dream. Therefore, he soldiers on with a wrecking crew of musicians backing him, and, if never gets the recognition he deserves, well, that’s just sad.
Guttural barroom renditions of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” were early highlights, as Winter made his Firebird scream while leaving the majority of heavy lifting to guitarist Paul Nelson, who is making a name for himself as an emotive player in his own right. His solos during “Killing Floor” and “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” made the crowd stand up and shout following each song’s conclusion.
The rhythm section of Tommy Curiale and Scott Spray had the band blowing the doors off the venue for most of the set, a fact that leads me to believe that this show was the loudest I’ve experienced inside The Bear’s Den to date. They exerted so much energy into each selection that the sound of Winter’s voice was an afterthought from the get-go, which led many fans to begin clamoring for him to turn up his microphone.
Their requests weren’t so much denied as they were completely dismissed, because Winter seldom addressed the crowd outside of an occasional title to announce a song. While past artists have embraced the up-close-and-personal makeup of the room, Winter kept things concise and free from anything that could be mistaken for small talk.
Casual fans may have come to hear his 1973 classic “Still Alive and Well” executed at maximum volume, but it was noticeably absent from the setlist. Instead, Winter and Co. opted for a mix of blues standards and material from their upcoming release that never ceased to captivate.
No one knows for sure when we’ll see Winter around these parts again, but I do know that we need him to rescue us from our American Idol hell just as much as he needs us to save him from his own private hell.
Hopefully, his health will cooperate long enough to make that happen.