Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Maybe there should be instant replay at concerts?
What should have been an electrifying night of the blues fell short of the mark. Upon further review, there were many reasons why, for this newbie to one band and a long-time fan of a Texas legend.
Savoy Brown (featuring Kim Simmonds) drew a strong contingent and played a competent but unspectacular hour-long opening set. Simmonds, who shared lead vocal duties with Joe Whiting (who played occasional sax) dialed in a tone derivative of Eric Clapton’s early Cream-era recordings and moved about the stage like a man half his age. “Meet the Blues Head On,” a uptempo blues-rocker, opened the show but seemed more appropriate for an arena rather than a theater; the riffs were predictable, and the lyrics melded every cliche imaginable.
“Looking in From the Outside” featured some extended solos from Simmonds, but these never really caught fire, though the Savoy diehards in the crowd were quite appreciative. “Street Corner Talking” (from 1971) fared a bit better, with Whiting and Simmonds doubling lines on sax and guitar respectively. The medley of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” and Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” paid homage to Simmonds’ roots, but it got a bit bombastic at the end, with Simmonds and Whiting trading guitar and vocal lines like Page and Plant from Led Zeppelin circa 1970.
More impressive were the acoustic numbers “Train to Nowhere” and “I’m Tired,” which showed that Simmonds could mix blues and Celtic influences. “She’s Got the Heat” (from the recent “Voodoo Moon”) made the end of the set and allowed the band the chance to stretch out, with Simmonds flashing some decent slide riffs on his sunburst Les Paul. Called out for an encore, Savoy Brown played a well-received but quaint “Time Must Tell.”
After a half hour intermission, Johnny Winter’s band took the stage. Guitarist Paul Nelson fired up an SRV-styled boogie for about five minutes; things looked promising. Gingerly, Johnny Winter made his way with his “stick” guitar to the folding chair at stage center. A life of hard living showed throughout much of the night in Winter’s vocals, which once fiery in his youth now seemed muted, but his chops on guitar were intact. There was just one problem: the sound mix. On nearly every song in the 80-minute set, Winter’s guitar got buried – Scott Spray’s bass and Vito Liuzzi’s drums were in the forefront, and Nelson’s rhythm guitar was either indistinct or obtrusive.
As for song selection, Winter played it safe much of the night, playing mainly standards, and refrained from engaging the audience in much conversation, which is a shame because the man has some great stories to tell. There were no acoustic moments, either, an equal disappointment given Winter’s genius on National Steel on many recordings over the years.
Yet there were some choice moments. Ray Charles’ “Blackjack” featured a decent vocal, and Lonnie Brooks’ funky “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” showed Winter hadn’t lost his sense of humor despite the travails of his personal life and career – wry hints of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Sympathy for the Devil” even showed up towards the tail end of the song. Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” got Winter up on his feet, and the doubled guitar lines with Nelson were impressive, if you strained hard enough hear them in the mix.
Winter’s encores, though, hinted at what the whole show should have been about. Strapping on his 1963 Firebird V, the wirey Texan broke out his metal slide for a charged take on Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and then went right into Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” The latter song had Winter grinning under his black hat; in the background, a montage of rare photos from his over-50-year career elicited a few “oohs and ahs.” Many of his friends have passed: unsung guitarists extraordinaire like Hubert Sumlin and Roy Buchanan; Austin blues promoter Clifford Antone; Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters… the list went on.
With uncanny synchronicity, Winter weaved in the melodies to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Room Full of Mirrors” in the final three minutes just as the youthful images of Jimi and Johnny, onstage and offstage, flashed on the screen. It was a hair-raising sequence, and not in a ghoulish way. It showed a shared love of the blues, as well as the power of memory.