(Johnny) Winter is coming to Buffalo
Multi-Grammy nominated guitarist Johnny Winter has had a lifetime full of musical achievements. From rising to stardom in the late sixties and playing at Woodstock, to producing and playing on several of Muddy Waters’s Grammy-winning albums, to a pair of appearances playing with Eric Clapton at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, he has done it all. And Winter hasn’t slowed down lately, either; the past two years have brought collaborations with Sly and the Family Stone and William Shatner, an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman following the release of his 2001 album Roots, and an international tour. It doesn’t appear he has any plans of letting up, with a follow-up to Roots in the works and a documentary in progress.
Although rock and roll brought Winter national attention and acclaim, he is first and foremost a blues guitarist. Roots pays homage to the blues songs and artists that have inspired Winter to play for nearly half a century. It gave him a chance to revive blues classics along with an all-star group of guest musicians including Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Jimmy Vivino, John Popper, John Medeski and his brother, Edgar Winter. As his tour makes its way toward Buffalo (Jan. 31), I had a chance to talk to Johnny and bandmate/producer Paul Nelson from the road.
So Paul, what’s it like working with Johnny Winter?
Paul Nelson: He was always a childhood idol of mine; it’s a thrill playing side-by-side with him and he’s kind of taken me under his wing.
What can you tell me about producing Roots?
PN: The concept was to have Johnny record songs by artists that influenced him. As a producer, I knew we had to have some sort of a theme behind it before it even started so I researched and talked to all the record companies and management, promoters … I found that they were all pushing him towards rock and he really wanted to do blues. So I said, “Why don’t we do a record, the whole thing, with songs that he wants to do, traditional songs that were hits back in the day?” And he loved the idea. First thing you’ve got to do do is pick the tunes. And in fifteen minutes he picked all the songs for the record! Now we’ve got to pick some guests … so we started making phone calls, you know, people who had been with Johnny on stage—Haynes, Gill, Tedeschi and Trucks, etc.
Johnny Winter: They were all great; it worked out really well.
Your brother plays saxophone on the song “Honky Tonk.” I take it you two still work well together?
JW: We’ve been recording together for so long, it’s always a lot of fun. We know each other so well.
How does it feel cutting an album now as opposed to when you first got started?
JW: It’s definitely changed. They record all the tracks first and I put my parts on later. We used to always do it at the same time. I like it the old way.
Nelson says that Winter made recording the songs for Roots seem easy:
PN: Know that they were all one-takes—he’s a living Hendrix. It has gone so well for Johnny that we’re already in the studio working on a new single and recording him for [next album] Roots II.
How far along is Roots II?
JW: We finished all the tracks but I haven’t put my parts on it yet.
What can we expect to hear on the album?
JW: “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “Blue Monday” by Fats Domino, “Sweet Thing” by B.B. King. [But] I don’t want to tell you all the songs!
PN: Between this and his appearance on Letterman last year and his health, he’s enjoying a real comeback.
How was playing on Letterman?
JW: I’ve been on his show once before, and it’s always fun to do his show; I really enjoy it. It’s not really that much different other than [any other performance, except] there’s cameras on you, but we play the same way.
How’s the tour going so far?
JW: It’s pretty much just the regular stuff; we’re just touring and playing our songs, not doing anything different.
I understand that Greg Oliver is doing a film about the tour.
JW: We’re in the process of doing the documentary now. He’s the one with all the ideas, so I don’t really know how he’s actually going to put it together … he just films us.
Gibson released a signature Johnny Winter Firebird a couple years ago, do you stick with one guitar on stage?
JW: I have two guitars that I use all the time, one’s for sliding and one’s just a regular guitar.
How long has it been since you’ve been in Buffalo?
JW: It’s been a while, at least a year. I like playing Buffalo. One of my brother’s ex-wives is from Buffalo [he laughs].
Do you have anything else going on that we should know about?
JW: Working on the new album and playing, that’s about it.
The Johnny Winter Band performs at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. doors) this Thursday, January 31, at the Tralf Music Hall. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com or call 852-2860. Photo courtesy of the artist.