Within a few notes, you know it's Johnny Winter's guitar—coiling, serpentine slide slashes; billowing clouds of power chords interjected with fleet-fingered, screaming, weeping lashes of licks. It's a wicked force of nature; a casino full of brawling one-percenters; a methamphetamine-induced hallucination conjured to sonic life.
Like such towering bluesmen as T-Bone, Muddy, Elmore and B.B. before him, Winter might have settled for recycling at accelerated speed the licks he learned off records. Instead, his only rival in the generation of '60s guitar gods was Jimi Hendrix, a similarly haunted man, albeit one whose celebrity and influence far outpaced Winter's—a phenomenon that had less to do with technique, perhaps, than with his early expiration date.
What of Clapton, Guy, Bloomfield, Allman, Beck, Page, Allison, you ask? Great guitarists all, but none as great as Winter, who never, ever sounded like anyone but himself; more menacing than pretty, more psycho than somber, more tough than tender and more frenzied than graceful, but all that together, depending on Winter's mood, material and, presumably, toxic ingestion rate.
For Winter, you see, is a legendary figure in more than a merely musical regard. This is a man whose limitless lust for hard living and resulting personal uglitude put Keith Richards to shame; Keith is positively Jack La Lanne next to the impossibly fragile and timeworn Winter, a man whose real soul mate is maybe Billie Holiday, although he's had the good grace to last.
But the fast life seems finally to have caught up to our hero in more than just a cosmetic sense. Listen to his last album, 2004's I'm a Bluesman, and you'll find Winter's once-formidable vocal growl—an entity as rare as his guitar playing—reduced to an emphysemic wheeze. His picking has decelerated just enough to be evident, which is to say that Winter still smokes the competition, even as veteran listeners will mournfully wince here or there.
Even in this reduced state, Johnny Winter in concert Friday at the Galaxy is one of the great events of 2006.
Johnny Winter at the Galaxy Theater, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd, Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $29.50. All ages.
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