Johnny Winter

Pointblank/Charisma V2-86512

Johnny Winter seems to have hit one of his periods of productivity–Hey, Where’s Your Brother? is his second LP in little more than a year. Along with other Texans who came of age in the 50s and 60s (Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins) he’s retained his youthful fire. As he’s gotten older, however, his lyric sense has matured; on numbers like “Life Is Hard,” from Let Me In, his last record, he acknowledged the psychic vulnerabilities that have added urgency to his best music and affected his life, off and on, since he erupted into national prominence in the 60s. (“Don’t kill yourself, Johnny,” Dr. John once advised him during a recording session when Winter was feeling especially low. “Kill somebody else!”)

The undercurrent of pain in Winter’s music tends to redeem even his most excessive moments. When he screams his paeans to macho blues excess and love-’em-and-leave-’em romantic misadventures, his voice sounds raw and wounded; and the furious onslaughts of his guitar playing often evoke the torments of a soul careening out of control–it’s the sound Buddy Guy patented in his early days on Chess (“First Time I Met the Blues”), and it’s as riveting now as it was in 1960.

Winter’s sound is still primarily the same roaring-bull, roadhouse overdrive he’s been associated with since the beginning: Hey, Where’s Your Brother? contains no confessional nods to vulnerability like “Life Is Hard.” This raises some interesting issues: times have changed since Winter’s national debut; the kind of testosterone-drenched rock-and-roll abandon that set both men and women screaming in the late 60s is being called into question these days, and an artist like Winter runs the risk of being labeled a relic if he doesn’t change with the times. In the best rebel tradition, Winter seems to have taken the challenge to heart: Hey, Where’s Your Brother? sounds like nothing so much as an act of defiance.

Winter waves his machismo like a flag. He proclaims his undying dedication to traveling the road with the boys, he steadfastly refuses to be corralled into emotional commitments, and his warnings to young men getting married are as shamelessly and joyfully sexist as anything I’ve heard since Jimmy Soul’s notorious “If You Wanna Be Happy” back in 1963. The occasional intentional self-parody that lightened up his previous disc (“Illustrated Man”) isn’t present here; this is flat-out, in-your-face Johnny Winter.

Musically, this disc finds Winter repeatedly returning to his Texas roots. Perhaps inevitably the spirit of T-Bone Walker hovers over everything–his presence is felt in unexpected places. Winter also pays tribute to such mentors and contemporaries as Albert Collins and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. The song “Johnny Guitar,” on a vintage Watson theme, is both a tribute and a crunching good time. As usual Winter makes it his own, firing off a few Watson-like licks toward the beginning but then ascending into his patented rapid-fire, metal-blooze barrages.

To my ears, though, drummer Tom Compton and bassist Jeff Ganz’s thunder-boogie beat sometimes gets too ponderous to propel Winter–it doesn’t have the shuffling impetus necessary to this kind of material. On “She Likes to Boogie Real Low,” Winter’s solo is a virtual modern Texas tour de force: his tone is intense but fluid, and his patterns approach the dexterous fusion of supplely chorded jazziness and gutbucket dirtiness that characterized both the Houston young generation and their Memphis counterparts in the 50s. (Later on he evokes Memphis even more strongly with an eloquent reading of Roscoe Gordon’s “No More Doggin’.”) On “She Likes to Boogie,” Winter inserts everything from a high-voltage nod to T-Bone to self-referential fire storms, using sustained phrases that evoke Collins and Copeland to tie everything together. Yet the song never quite takes off; Winter sounds anchored by his rhythm section.

His face-to-face confrontations with Chicago harp player Billy Branch pose no such difficulties, however. Although Branch is usually known as a sweet-toned warbler in the Little Walter/Big Walter tradition, he easily adapts to Winter’s style, and the results are exhilarating. “You Must Have a Twin” finds Branch and Winter raunching out together, note for note–they leave taste and subtlety far behind on this balls-out screamfest as Winter’s slide squirms convulsively, cutting like an electric wire wrapping itself around your gut, while Branch’s harp lays sandpaper-rough slashes over the top.

As always, Winter has at least one trick up his sleeve: “Blues This Bad” is an oasis of acoustic mellowness amid all the metallic fire. An elaboration on the traditional “Rollin’ and Tumblin”‘ riff, it treats us to a tour through almost an entire blues school: Winter’s solo progresses from primal Delta flailing through intense melodicism, evoking Robert Johnson, and by the end his leads have evolved into phrases of contemporary-sounding complexity. Yet all the while he remains within the stylistic restrictions of the Delta form. It’s a remarkable demonstration of knowledge, facility, and taste from a musician too often written off as nothing more than an excessive boogie master.

But make no mistake–raunchy good times are Johnny Winter’s natural element. “White Line Blues” is another Delta-ish slide showpiece, with whiffs of Johnson’s “Walking Blues” in the beat, the guitar pattern, and Winter’s lyrics (“I’ve taken the highway to be my only friend / You know I love the road, and it don’t have no end”). It’s couched in a thunderous power-trio format. At times Winter approaches the combination of metallic heaviness and string-bending snappiness–riding herd on the beat, then breaking up the melody with sharp, piercing phrases, all within a restricted harmonic range–that Leslie West used to delight in.

Meanwhile Winter’s material remains rooted in unapologetic, strutting machismo. Fred James’s “Check Out Her Mama,” laid over a loping bass line vaguely reminiscent of “Woke Up This Morning,” is a warning to prospective husbands: “You think you’ve found the girl of your dreams / But pretty things aren’t always what they seem . . . / Check out her mama before you say “I do’ . . . / If her mama ain’t fine you better take your time / She’s gonna look just like her mama on down the line!” In Willie Dixon’s “I Got My Brand on You,” the title says it all.

Winter’s guitar on “Brand” is a splintered, tormented version of traditional Delta/Chicago patterns, structurally reminiscent of Jimmy Rogers’s work with Muddy Waters but infinitely more raucous and raw. Branch sounds like Little Walter on this one, inserting his melody lines into Winter’s roomy, wide-fingered chords with unerring accuracy. “One Step Forward (Two Steps Back)” is another showcase for Branch and Winter spewing notes and sparks all over each other. This song sounds as if it’s based on a high-octane boogie updating of Cream’s riff in “SWLABR” (“She walks like a bearded rainbow”). Whether or not the participants had Cream in mind, this is pure, unadulterated Texas raunch, with no arty pretensions of any kind.

For those who’ve lost track of Winter’s brother Edgar since his 70s pop-metal days, this disc will be a revelation. Edgar contributes some lovely sax on several of these cuts, providing some much-needed tastefulness amid the raunchy carrying-on. “Sick and Tired,” a chestnut from New Orleans’s Chris Kenner, lopes along in a somewhat ponderous variation on the traditional Crescent City second-line beat, but then Edgar cuts in with a solo that approaches the yakkety-yak giddiness of Lee Allen in his prime. Not to be outdone, Johnny bites off crisp, fierce phrases interspersed with rock-and-roll chords, then breaks into a furious solo-ending onslaught–a melding of influences ranging from Guitar Slim’s manic barrages to Albert Collins’s icy, ferocious arpeggios.

Edgar is also featured on a close- harmony reworking of Charles Brown’s standard “Please Come Home for Christmas.” His vocals–a deep-toned, soulful high-harmony croon–and his fat-timbred, churchy sax break are the song’s high points. Hearing the Winter brothers together again, in a straight-ahead blues context, bodes well for the future and is itself worth the price of this disc.

Johnny Winter seems to have struck a comfortable balance between his desire to remain true to his roots and his equally powerful drive to honor his own forward-looking vision. When you think about how a lot of his 60s-era contemporaries have ended up–both personally and professionally–that’s quite an achievement. The fact Winter’s still putting out first-rate records after all these years is a matter for celebration. Whether he can remain relevant in the face of changing tastes and consciousness is another question–one he seems to be avoiding, but which might end up providing him with the most daunting challenge he’s faced yet.