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JOHNNY WINTER

STEP BACK

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Megaforce (MEGA1696)

Unchain My Heart, Can’t Hold Out, Don’t Want No Woman, Killing Floor, Who Do You Love, Okie Dokie Stomp, Where Can You Be, Sweet Sixteen, Death Letter, My Babe, Long Tall Sally, Mojo Hand, Blue Monday

It would be easy to think that, given the sad news of Johnny’s recent passing, a positive review of his final recorded album might be included as a form of sympathy vote.

Nothing doing here however. All glowing comments that follow are positively justified and fully merited. Make no mistake, this is a stonker and up there with the best of his albums from a long and illustrious career.

Right from the opening bars of the opener, a rockin’ version of Ray Charles Unchain My Heart, you just sense you are onto a winner as Johnny’s growly vocals and snarly guitar meld splendidly in with the punchy horn charts and breezy call-and-response backing singing.

After this, things hardly let up across the album’s thirteen tracks. Johnny’s thrilling slide on Elmore’s I Can’t Hold Out soon gives way to the all-out-attack Bobby Bland’s I Don’t Want No Woman, with Johnny and Eric Clapton trading spirited guitar licks to the obvious enjoyment of both.

Other guests pop up throughout, including Joe Bonamassa, Ben Harper, Leslie West, Billy Gibbons and more, but they never offer more than added value embellishments to what is clearly Johnny’s album at all times. Nowhere is this more in evidence that on the sprightly version of Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s instrumental Okie Dokie Stomp. On this, Johnny’s guitar goes charging off on a Texas blues romp only for Brian Setzer’s rockabilly trills to catch up with him and add extra bounce to what is already an enlivening experience. And on the closing track, the New Orleans favourite, Blue Monday, Dr John’s presence as much as his always-splendid piano playing adds a real flavour of the Crescent City musical vibe. 

If the years of hard living had caught up with Johnny by the time this album was recorded, there is no sense of it here in his guitar playing. This at all times is energetic, imaginative and inventive and mercifully free of the tendency to be excessive, indulgent and over-bearing that he occasionally fell victim to on some of his earlier albums. And, if the toll of ageing can be detected in the vocals from time to time, this works in his favour here, presenting him as a bluesman who has paid his dues and retained and enhanced his dignity and gravitas. Nowhere is this more in evidence than on his superb (and now poignant) solo acoustic version of Son House’s Death Letter Blues, where his world-weary vocals are perfectly set against the spirited energy of his atmospheric dobro playing.

This is of course very much a follow-up and companion to 2011’s tremendous album, Roots (MEGA1603), which similarly paired Johnny up with an array of stellar guests on a set of blues favourites. Both are seriously enjoyable and a fitting way to bring to an end a life in the blues.

 

Review Date: August 2014

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