At the height of his performance powers, Johnny Winter was the baddest of the bad — a wicked Texas guitarslinger equally versed in the blues traditions of his home state and the electric boogie offshoots that sparked once that music found its way to Chicago. But what made Winter truly distinctive was his ability to awaken white, rock 'n' roll schooled audiences to the lessons of the blues.
Step Back is Winter's final recording — an album completed and planned for release this week, well before the guitarist's death in July at age 70. Dominated by all-star jams and duets featuring pals like Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer and Aerosmith's Joe Perry, the record presents the air of a primo blues and boogie party, a setting established in full by the brass and sass of the Blues Brothers Horns on the album-opening cover of the Ray Charles hit Unchain My Heart. Here, as is the case throughout Step Back, the thrill doesn't come from the all-star support; if anything, the horns tend to overstate the mood. The excitement comes instead from Winter, his voice weathered by age but his guitarwork as forceful as ever. It's as if his resolute blues attitude is shaking a fist at the heavens, the sign of a defiant spirit that remains far more youthful than the body and voice that contain it.
The celebrity jams are all great fun, even if a few of them seem tailored more for the guest contributors than the guest of honor, like the raunch 'n' roll of Long Tall Sally with Leslie West and the swing-style Okie Dokie Stomp with Setzer. But the solemn slow-blues dynamic of Sweet Sixteen with Joe Bonamassa is a genuine surprise.
On the other hand, a meeting with another elder Texas blues intellect, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, on Where Can You Be hits the bullseye with a patient, smoldering blues roll that seriously satisfies with its unhurried Lone Star groove.
Not surprisingly, the high point comes when Winter shuts down the guest list to take on Son House's Death Letter by himself. Every vocal blemish and blur is worn like a badge of honor here against the lone, wiry accompaniment of steel guitar. The sparseness is so complementary to the sage-like demeanor of the performance that you almost wish Winter would have cut an entire album of solo tunes.
Don't for a second think Step Back is a definitive Johnny Winter record. For that, scroll back to any of the 12 albums he cut with the Columbia/Blue Sky labels between 1969 and 1980, the most recommended being 1970's Second Winter and 1977's Nothin' But the Blues, or the mammoth boxed set True to the Blues, released earlier this year, that covers those records.
Consider Step Back, instead, as the bruised but regal victory lap of a mammoth blues career.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic