Johnny Winter

July 26, 2013
Coach House
San Juan Capistrano, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Robert Govier

When I heard Johnny Winter, the legendary blues-rock guitarist from Texas, was coming back to the Coach House, I was bound and determined to see him, mostly because he was one of those guys I missed out on back in the day and it was a chance to see him in the intimate confines of one of Orange County’s finest venues. I also heard reports about the guitarist’s frail health, and realized I’d better catch him sooner than later. It’s not like he’s about to cash in his chips, so to speak, but it was a smart move nonetheless.

After a couple of decent blues-rock cover bands warmed up the full house, the lights dimmed around 10:00 and Winter’s backing band — guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Tommy Curiale — kicked up the dust with a cookin’ little introductory jam. Suddenly, a well-dressed gent in a top hat, long beard, dark shades, vest and sleeveless shirt approached the microphone and introduced the man of the hour.

From his motor home parked just outside a door next to the stage, Winter entered the Coach House and two or three people assisted him to the stage. He climbed up the stairs to the stage and nearly lost his balance, and I began to wonder just how exactly this was going to play out. Then, without any further assistance at all, he gracefully stumbled over to a stool, a small table with personal effects nearby. This is where Johnny Winter would remain for the next 70 minutes or so.

A few adjustments, a bottled water and handkerchief at the ready, and it was on. The band worked fast and furious as Winter sheepishly sang the first few lines of “Johnny B. Goode.” His voice would grow stronger as the night wore on. Although he seemed oblivious to the audience, there was no reticence in his playing, which would evolve as each song was rolled out. I was happy to hear Larry Williams’ “Bony Maronie,” which Winter had covered on his 1974 album Saints & Sinners.

For most of the show, Winter played his Erlewine Lazer guitar, a lightweight Texas-made axe he’s been endorsing since the 80s. The band really started tearing it up on “Got My Mojo Workin'” and when the solo came around, the burning fingers of Johnny Winter came alive. For “Black Jack,” the pace was brought down a notch or two, but for the most part, it was about smoldering hot Texas blues-rock, and Winter hit his mark like the master that he is.

Nelson, who has been a pivotal figure in Winter’s life for the last 10 years or so, was not only there to back up his boss, but to challenge him as a fellow guitar player as well. The two exchanged leads on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Nelson copped a sweet and lyrical lead of his own on Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” a song closely associated with the Rolling Stones.

Speaking of the Stones, it was Mick Jagger’s 70th birthday on this night. With absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever, Winter played “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which he always plays anyway, and tossed in a few lines from “Gimme Shelter” during the break. If he’d added “Let It Bleed,” which he recorded for 1973’s Still Alive And Well, that would have been the tip-off, but you can’t always get what, ahem, you want.

The well-dressed gent in the top hat stood idly by and eventually brought up Winter’s classic 1963 Gibson Firebird to finish out the night. A standing ovation later, he was blazing up and down the fretboard on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and the room stood still in total awe. He finished up, took a swig from his water bottle, wiped his nose, and was swiftly whisked from the stage and presumably back to the waiting motor home. As I exited the building, I noticed a line forming outside the motor home's door, security keeping things in order. I began to wonder if he does meet-and-greets from the doorway.

It didn’t matter because I didn’t wait around to see. I was happy enough to see him play, knowing full well I’d see him again. Apparently, Nelson is working with Winter to get him in shape after decades of hard living. He’s even able to stand and play at some shows — something he hasn’t done in years — although he looked fairly unsteady on his feet tonight. His playing was a little restrained at first, but undiminished for the most part. I have a strange feeling he’s going to be at it no matter what for a while yet. “Go Johnny…go!”

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