At age 60, Johnny Winter looks like a pile of bleached-out human bones someone found in the woods, glued together and propped up for display. That this man continues to lurk among the living is both inspiring and terrifying. Winter is an albino; albinos are not known to enjoy a normal life expectancy, yet here is Winter, a man who has for 40 years famously, gleefully abused every substance known to man with a fervor that would make Keith Richards blush and who steadfastly refuses to expire, although he appears outwardly to have done so many a full moon back. This, however, accounts for only a tiny fraction of Winter's vast appeal.
Although nowhere near as celebrated, I rank this man right up there with Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman among the top three rock & roll guitarists of all time. Yes, this means I believe him to be both a better player than—and ultimately a bigger influence upon rock & roll than—such contemporary brethren as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana. On top of his dazzling speed, screaming soulfulness and shit-your-pants technical wizardry, his sound is so demonic, so malevolent you imagine it emanates from the death-stinking talons of Satan himself. Winter's riffs twist and coil their way into your orifices like venomous serpents seeking shelter from the light. They bite and slash and constrict your innards; they defile your blood and mesmerize your brain with Seconal, strychnine and cheap whiskey, ultimately leaving you an exhausted husk from the effects of some dark, unspeakable power. He is the modern incarnation of Robert Johnson, the only other guitar player whose work sounds similarly haunted.
This is to say nothing of Winter's equally creepy and inimitable vocals, a growling, yowling, tormented wail that might have been what Howlin' Wolf sounded like had he been a 90-pound white guy instead of a 300-pound black guy.
Well, at least it once was thus. It is with a heavy heart that I must report, judging by his upcoming CD, I'm a Blues Man, that time is catching up with Our Hero. While the guitar playing remains at perhaps 85 percent peak command, Johnny's vocal force is sadly diminished; the raging tornado is now a wispy breeze. That's to be expected; that's life, even—or maybe especially—when you look like a dead man. Because the thing is Johnny Winter, against all odds, is not dead yet—and perhaps he never will be. And a weakened Winter at the guitar remains mightier than any Kenny or Jonny on the scene—not to mention a pukedly overrated Jack White, who ought to personally apologize to Winter while serving up a salad toss for being rated No. 17 to Winter's criminal No. 74 in Rolling Stone's damnable Greatest Guitarists issue.
Meanwhile, do yourself a favor: go out and pick up copies of a prime Johnny's Progressive Blues Experiment, Johnny Winter, Second Winter, Nothin' But the Blues, Guitar Slinger and Let Me In albums—three full decades' worth of mind-boggling magnificence perhaps unmatched by any rock or blues guitarist who's ever walked the earth. In their abbreviated lifetimes, even Jimi and Duane failed to leave so rich a legacy as this.
Johnny Winter performs with Loose Blue Alligator and English Motorbike at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Tues., 8 p.m. $29.50. All ages.