March 2007

Johnny Winter
March 26, 2007The PhoenixToronto
A Living Legend
Report and photos by Dougal Bichan
It must be difficult to compete with your own legend, especially for a musician who has held the public stage. Some can do it. B.B. King seems to age gracefully. For some, the legend may be so hot, white, and blue that it might be difficult. For some like Johnny Winter, it might be difficult. At a time when white people started playing the black people’s blues, Johnny was the whitest, and bluest. How can you compete with the memories of a 20-year-old Johnny Winter, leaping around the stage of Massey Hall, spraying out notes like hot lead from an Uzzi. How can anyone live up to that?

Johnny Winter played the Phoenix Concert Hall on Monday, March 26. It was a warm evening as we lined up along Sherbourne Street. Doc McLean provided the pre-opening act as he busked up a storm on his old National Steel to prepare us for more blues to come. “T for Texas, T for Tennessee.”

The Phoenix was packed. The crowd was mostly male and over 40. There were very few women. The blues seems to be a male bonding kind of event. The audience stood and rocked back and forth all night. Try to push your way through the crowd and you get the evil eye and more.

The opening act came on, the Scott Holt Band. Scott was billed as the guitar player for Buddy Guy. I was ready to be impressed. I love Buddy Guy. Why would he need a guitar player? I wanted to be impressed. Scott proceeded to make a mockery of every great blues guitar player from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Hendrix. He had no soul whatsoever. They went on far too long, from 8:30 to 9:45. He kept saying that their job was to build us up for Johnny. Ahhh! Bring on Johnny! Get this poseur off the stage!

When Johnny Winter finally came onstage at 10:00, he was guided on by roadies with flashlights to sit in a chair front stage centre, in front of the mike. He looked so frail. Yes, he is an albino and white hair and white eyes, and all under a black hat. But so frail! And yet the guitar rang out! When he played, it was almost as if the years were washed away. If you closed your eyes, you might be sitting in Massey Hall again, watching a 20-something Johnny dance around the stage and fire off blues notes like bullets. Almost. Then I would open my eyes and see the man sitting in the chair. Eyes closed. Black hat. White beard. Guitar playing. They were mostly blues standards. I wanted to hear some of the famous slide but it didn’t happen. The last song before the encore was “This Could Be The Last Time”. It might be the last time we see Johnny Winter. But then he came back onstage with the slide guitar, and slid into “Mojo Boogie” then “Highway 61”. He can still play the slide.

Then it was over and I felt sad, not just because of the performance but saddened by my inability to accept ageing. Myself included. Rock on Johnny guitar, but rock on in my own memories of your greatness and best efforts. I want to remember the Johnny guitar from way back when. Dance on Johnny.

I was back out on Sherbourne Street watching the exiting multitudes, looking for something. They were all praising and glorying in the evening. One young man praised the encore rendition of “Highway 61”. It was a note for note from my memory of the recording.

Yes, rock on Johnny guitar. Rock on in my memories. The man can still play, but it is difficult to compete with your own legend. In the end, the evening was filled with sadness and the passage and the ravages of time, but maybe that is what the blues is all about.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Dougal Bichan
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The Live Music Report
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Dougal Bichan is a professional photographer and communications consultant living in Toronto. He has spent many years photographing musicians. To view more of Dougal's work >

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