Thursday, March 12, 2015

Johnny Winter - Roots/Step Back

In 2004, Johnny Winter released an album [at that time his first in 12 years] called I’m a Bluesman.  It was a good record, but not a great one.  Some complained [rightly so] that his vocals had lost their ferocity, as had his playing.  There is a reason for this.  Johnny’s former manager, Teddy Slatus, kept him secluded, and kept him on methadone [for 30 years!] and anti-depression meds.  Slatus even kept his brother Edgar away from Johnny.  But Johnny Winter had a secret weapon.  His name is Paul Nelson.  Already the second guitarist in Johnny’s road band, he asked Nelson if he would be his manager.  He did so after Johnny fired Slatus, and Nelson began to make some changes.  He allowed people to communicate with Johnny Winter, who also credited Nelson to getting him kick all the drugs, all the booze, and even quit smoking.  He once said “I never thought I would see the day that I didn’t have any vices at all.”  Once all those vices were gone, the voice got stronger, and the playing got stronger.

Once he was well enough to record, the plan was simple.  When JW asked Nelson what he should put down, Nelson suggested that JW record songs that inspired him.  JW liked the idea, and the concept of Roots was born.  Not only would they record one “roots” album, the two men planned on recording four of them.  Not only did they record blues songs, but also old rock and roll songs from the 1950s.  The plan was also to have other artists [most of whom had worked with JW before] make guest appearances.  Other older stars have made duet records before [Frank Sinatra and BB King immediately come to mind], but these “duet” records would have a twist.  The “duets” would not be with vocals [with two exceptions] – they would be with the instruments.  There are plenty of guitarists on these albums.  After hearing I’m a Bluesman, I was worried that any and/or all the guests would upstage Johnny.  I need not have worried.  Johnny Winter’s recovery from his addictions took hold, and he went toe-to-toe with his guests with ease. 

In 2014 Johnny Winter followed Roots with Step Back.  The plan for Step Back was the same as Roots.  I think of both albums as part of the same work, hence this blog about both of them.  When asked earlier in 2014 what was left for Johnny Winter to accomplish, he responded that he sure would like to win a Grammy®.  Last month, Step Back won the Grammy® for Best Blues Album of 2014.  Too bad Johnny Winter didn’t live to see it happen.

Roots [2011]
T-Bone Shuffle                       T-Bone Walker                              Sonny Landreth
Further On Up The Road        Bobby Blue Bland                         Jimmy Vivino
Done Somebody Wrong         Elmore James                                Warren Haynes
Got My Mojo Working           Muddy Waters                              Frank Lattore
Last Night                               Little Walter                                  John Popper
Maybellene                             Chuck Berry                                  Vince Gill
Bright Lights, Big City           Jimmy Reed                                  Susan Tedeschi
Honky Tonk                            Clarence Gatemouth Brown         Edgar Winter
Dust My Broom                      Elmore James                                Derek Trucks
Short Fat Fannie                     Larry Williams                              Paul Nelson
Come Back Baby                    Ray Charles                                  John Medeski

Step Back [2014]
Unchain My Heart                  Ray Charles                                  Blues Bros Horns
Can’t Hold Out                      
[Talk To Me Baby]                 Elmore James                               Ben Harper
Don’t Want No Woman          Bobby Blue Bland                       Eric Clapton
Killing Floor                           Howlin’ Wolf                               Paul Nelson
Who Do You Love                 Bo Diddley
Okie Dokey Stomp                 Clarence Gatemouth Brown         Brian Setzer
Sweet Sixteen                         BB King                                        Joe Bonamassa
Where Can You Be                 Jimmy Reed                                 Billy Gibbons
Death Letter                            Son House
My Babe                                  Little Walter                                Jason Ricci
Long Tall Sally                        Little Richard                              Leslie West
Mojo Hand                               Lightnin’ Hopkins                       Joe Perry
Blue Monday                            Fats Domino                               Dr. John

The home runs:
Dust My Broom – words escape me on how good this one is.  Johnny Winter and Derek Trucks duel on the slide.  Too bad Derek doesn’t play like this on his own albums.

Death Letter – This is the only acoustic slide song between the two collections.  JW was always great at this sort of thing.  What a shame he never recorded an entire album of this stuff.

Don’t Want No Woman – Johnny Winter sure loved Elmore James.  Him and Eric Clapton together – what could go wrong?

Can’t Hold Out [Talk To Me Baby] – Ben Harper sings and plays his lap steel.

Met Expectations:
T-Bone Shuffle
Done Somebody Wrong
Sweet Sixteen
Where Can You Be
My Babe
Further On Up the Road
Short Fat Fannie

Muddy and The Wolf:  No album of blues covers is complete without at least a nod to Muddy Waters and/or Howlin’ Wolf.  Johnny Winter just happened to do my favorites from Muddy and the Wolf – Got My Mojo Workin’ and Killing Floor.  Very nice!

Instrumentals:  There are two of them, both from Clarence Gatemouth Brown:  Okie Dokie Stomp and Honky Tonk.  Both are very good.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Come Back Baby – I heard Clapton do this on his From the Cradle collection.  I liked that one a lot.  This one is better.

Mojo Hand – Joe Perry was pretty good here.  If he ever decides to stop playing chick music with Aerosmith, he could have a future in the blues.  Too bad he can’t sing…

Picks from out of Left Field:
Unchain My Heart Johnny Winter takes a turn at an old Ray Charles song.  The result isn’t bad, it’s just mind-blowing.

Maybelline – Not only did I not expect Johnny Winter to do another Chuck Berry song in his career, I really didn’t expect Vince Gill to come along for the ride.  This is most excellent.

Blue Monday – Johnny Winter sings Fats Domino!  I didn’t see that one coming…

Songs I can do without: 
Bright Lights, Big City – There must be some clause in every contract that Derek Trucks signs that says “if you work with me, you have to work with my wife.”  In the blues community, Susan Tedeschi is becoming almost as ubiquitous as Sheryl Crow is in the rock/pop world.  That is not a compliment.   I’m still not a member of The Church of Susan.

Last Night – If you have heard one John Popper harmonica solo, you have heard them all.  He ruins an otherwise fine take on this Little Walter gem with his overplaying.

Long Tall Sally – The only person on the planet who should be allowed to sing Little Richard songs [besides the man himself] is Paul McCartney.  Vocally, Johnny Winter is no Paul McCartney.

Both Roots and Step Back are worthy additions to any Johnny Winter collections.  They make a fitting epitaph for a Texas bluesman who is sorely missed.

John Hammond - Wicked Grin

When is a Tom Waits album not a Tom Waits album?  Wicked Grin is John Hammond’s 28th album.  For practically his entire career, John Hammond has been an interpreter of songs of blues musicians.  Wicked Grin is another such album in Hammond’s large canon, only with a twist.  It’s full of songs by Tom Waits, produced by Tom Waits, recorded in Tom Waits’ favorite studio with some of Tom Waits’ usual musical suspects [Waits' occasional bassist Larry Taylor, drummer Stephen Hodges, keyboardist Augie Meyers, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica].  The only song not written by Waits is I Know I’ve Been Changed.  There are two songs that had not been released by Tom Waits at the time Wicked Grin was recorded – 2:19 and Fannin Street [both were later released by the man himself in 2006].  Buzz Fledderjohn was a Japanese bonus track for Mule Variations.

As mentioned, John Hammond has made a career interpreting the blues of the old masters, so why Tom Waits?  I say “why not?”  The two men have friends for a long time.  Waits once opened for Hammond over forty years ago, an experience that Hammond once said made him very hesitant to follow Waits on-stage.  Of Waits’ songs, Hammond once said “I include a song of his or two just about every night. I love these songs. They nail it and they have a blues base… all the feeling, and Tom’s take on life  Waits provided a song for Hammond’s 1992 album Got Love If You Want It [the song is No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby if you’re looking].  Hammond returned the favor by playing on Waits’ 1999 album Mule Variations.

Wicked Grin has a dreamlike, swampy blues feeling to it.  For the most part Hammond stays away from Waits’ latter day work for Anti- Records and concentrates on the older stuff from the Asylum and Island days.  The songs from those days were more bluesy, boozy, and a bit more seedy.  What came out was a sparse, more modern sounding Tom Waits record with a singer you can actually understand.  That being said, these tales of urban realism, wild characters and street-smart scenes are in good hands with John Hammond.  Some of the arrangements are similar to [but not exactly like] the originals.  Others [the ones I prefer] are radically different.  Either way, this is good stuff.

The tracklist:

2:19 [Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards]
Heartattack and Vine [Heartattack and Vine]
Clap Hands [Rain Dogs]
‘Til the Money Runs Out [Heartattack and Vine]
16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six [Swordfishtrombones]
Buzz Fledderjohn [Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards]
Get Behind the Mule [Mule Variations]
Shore Leave [Swordfishtrombones]
Fannin Street [Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards]
Jockey Full of Bourbon [Rain Dogs]
Big Black Mariah [Rain Dogs]
Murder in the Red Barn [Bone Machine]
I Know I’ve Been Changed [Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards]

Tony’s picks from Wicked Grin:  Shore Leave, Buzz Fledderjohn, ‘Til the Money Runs Out, 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six.  The arrangements on the first three songs are radically different than the originals.  I like the originals, but these arrangements just add to the charm.  16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six is similar to the original, but to these ears John Hammond does it better. 

Bonus fries:  If you like Wicked Grin but can’t get enough of him singing songs by Tom Waits, there are more songs on subsequent albums.  On 2003’s Ready for Love [produced by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo], you’ll find Low Side of the Road [from 1999’s Mule Variations] and Gin Soaked Boy [from Swordfishtrombones].  On 2007’s Push Comes to Shove [produced by G. Love] you’ll find Cold Water [also from Mule Variations].

Bottom line:  If you like Tom Waits’ songs but not his voice, or if you just want to hear the songs you like done a different way, this is a very good purchase.  The albums from which the “bonus fries” come from are also worthy of parting with your money.  Ready for Love and Push Comes to Shove have similar production to Wicked Grin, so get all three for a nice trilogy.