Johnny Winter with Gibson Firebird

Nearly 40 years since he first caught the ears of blues and rock listeners everywhere, Gibson legend Johnny Winter remains a fixture on the road and a popular draw wherever he goes. After several years of health woes, including carpal tunnel surgery that threatened to permanently derail his career in 2005, Winter has been increasingly visible. He played about 120 shows in 2006 and is looking at 150 or more by the end of 2007. Earlier this month, Johnny hit the highway for a weekend run that preceded a string of European dates. Gibson came along for the ride.

Thursday, September 13, Charlottesville, Virginia
The first day on the road proves to be the most challenging. Charlottesville is roughly 400 miles from Johnny’s home in Connecticut, which means at least eight hours of riding—and that’s before setting up and playing. After encountering road construction everywhere in the D.C. area as well as a few related detours, eight hours turns into more like nine. The final obstacle comes as the bus is within just three blocks of its destination: The band is forced to wait another 20 minutes as a train slowly ambles down the tracks.

Winter has been off the road for more than two weeks, which leads me to ask if he’s picked up a guitar since his last gig. The answer is no, but it hardly matters. After his band takes the stage and warms up the audience for a few minutes, Johnny walks out, takes his customary seat (the legacy of a broken hip a few years ago) and tears through his set. He delivers blues classics like the Freddie King instrumental “Hideaway” and Muddy Water classic “Hoochie Coochie Man” before bringing out his 1964 Gibson Firebird and ending things with highly-personalized slide readings of “Mojo Boogie” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

The crowd loves it, and well wishers gather around the bus when it’s all over. All things considered, this was a good night: the performance took place in a small, intimate room, everything felt friendly, and the casualness of the audience made it an ideal place for a return to the road. It’s hard to tell that Johnny’s been away.

Friday, September 14, Alexandria, Virginia
The band spent last night in a hotel in Manassas, Virginia, close to this evening’s gig. And after a short early-afternoon drive, Johnny’s bus is parked behind a club called the Birchmere. He passes the afternoon hours doing what he loves to do: watching re-runs of television shows like All in the Family, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill. As afternoon turns to evening and show time nears, the television is turned off and he switches over to music—and the blues. He’s got an iPod loaded with thousands of tunes, and they’re all blues. The songs play at random through the speaker system, and the appearance of a particular song might make Johnny occasionally ask something like, “Who was the guy who played harp on Sleepy John Estes’ recordings?”

It’s a raucous, sold-out room of about 600 at the Birchmere, and the ticket holders are treated to one of the best performances Johnny has delivered in recent memory. The 63-year-old guitar hero, dressed in black from head to toe, is well rested and eager to play, and it shows—especially on his slow-blues reading of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack.” Not only are his guitar licks powerful and scorching, but he looks deep inside for something extra on his vocal, and finds it. “Each night, he does a little something that we haven’t seen him do before,” observes Paul Nelson, Johnny’s bandleader, guitarist, and the man who has handled his affairs since late 2005. “It’s just amazing to watch.”

When the gig is over and the gear is loaded, the bus heads north. Johnny needs no one to tell him that he was on tonight; he is beaming from the performance.

The iPod blasts away during the journey to a hotel near Newark, New Jersey. Johnny often rides along in contemplative silence, only to break out with an occasional thought or question, usually one related to the music that’s playing (or how far the bus is from its destination). When Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” comes on, Johnny sings along. And that means, he sings. It’s moments like these when the depth of Winter’s blues becomes clear: He knows song after song, backwards and forwards, from the repertoires of immortals like Johnson to significant but still lesser-known artists like Furry Lewis or Blind Willie McTell. It’s music that’s been in his soul since childhood, when he regularly listened to a Beaumont, Texas, deejay named Clarence Garlow. The city may have been segregated, but the airwaves were not.

As Johnny’s voice follows along with Johnson’s through the verses, everyone else on the bus remains silent and just listens, understanding what a special moment this is.

Saturday, September 15, New York City
One hassle about playing in Manhattan is that it’s impossible to find a place to park the bus. The solution? The band is shuttled into the city and dropped off. They leave around the middle of the afternoon for soundcheck, and they’re later followed by Johnny, who reaches the club around 8:30 p.m.

The evening at B.B. King’s should make for a great time: Johnny’s brother Edgar is also on the bill, it’s a beautiful night, and the place is packed. But Johnny isn’t thrilled that he’s got to play two separate shows—each consisting of an abbreviated set of about 40 minutes—instead of a single show with his normal, complete list of songs. This arrangement requires him to wait backstage between sets, and there’s nothing in life that Johnny hates more than waiting.

Edgar appears in Johnny’s dressing room following the first show, and that calms things a bit: While Johnny is reserved and often quiet, Edgar is outgoing and talkative. Edgar loves to talk about the mechanics of music—scales, keys, modes. He’s the musical opposite of Johnny, who prefers to just plug in and play without focusing on such matters. The brothers have a nice visit, talking about Texas, family, the road, and their latest news.

Sunday, September 16, Glenside, Pennsylvania
Edgar is again on the bill tonight with Johnny, who is headlining the Keswick Theater, a beautiful 1,300-seat facility in suburban Philadelphia with great acoustics. Rick Derringer of “Rock n’ Roll Hoochie Koo” fame opens. Johnny goes on last and is joined onstage at show’s end by both Edgar and Derringer, and the crowd loves it. Edgar blows a mean saxophone on “Johnny Guitar,” his exciting fills a perfect complement to Johnny’s heavy blues riffs.

One of the night’s highlights is Johnny, Edgar, and Derringer, joined onstage by Paul Nelson for a ripping read of the Bobby Womack-penned “It’s All Over Now.” By the time Nelson finishes a blistering guitar break, Edgar has danced all the way across the stage in sheer delight.

As the evening comes to an end, Johnny is sliding his way through “Highway 61 Revisited.” A female fan—one who turns out to be nothing more than a well wisher—jumps onstage and toward Johnny. She reaches him before she’s escorted from the stage by security. Lost in his playing and his blues, Johnny is unfazed.

Read Gibson's account of Winter's performance with the Allman Brothers here.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of In Tune Monthly