Legendary bluesman Johnny Winter looks and sounds as if suffering for his art now makes his art suffer.
When Johnny Winter shuffled onto the stage Thursday night at Jannus Landing, the crowd's welcoming cheers were underscored by murmured ripples of surprise and incomprehension.
The 55-year-old blues icon looked like a man 30 _ maybe 40 _ years older. He was an unsteady, skeletal figure whose electric guitar seemed to bend him like a heavy fruit hanging on a twig.
The performance that followed did not belie this image. Winter stood swaying in front of the microphone with his eyes shut tight. His voice, once comparable to Jimi Hendrix's smooth yet mischievous intonation, sounded windless and meek. It cracked like a teenager's when he reached too far for those gutsy high notes.
His other great voice _ the voice of his guitar _ also climbed but never climaxed. Throughout the show, his notes remained on the verge of lagging behind his bass player and drummer. Even then, the licks seemed cautious if not increasingly predictable. The easier blues vamps and sliding seventh chords won out over the growling melodies upon which Winter defined his early career. Any grit that might have enhanced the show by way of guitar feedback was foiled by a particularly nice sound mix, clear and crisp in the chilly night air.
All great bluesmen are renowned for rough lives, and Johnny Winter is no exception. There is an institutional respect for men and women who have suffered _ famously suffered _ for their art. The blues business looks skeptically upon those who haven't. But we are wrong to assume that big problems always add up to better blues. At least, not every Thursday night.
The ripest playing of the evening came from Winter's opening band, the youthful Damon Fowler Group, a trio of regulars on the local blues scene. With the energy and panache of a younger Winter, Fowler laid down sprawling riffs, often changed pace, and turned up the heat with a spacey cover of Robin Trower's Bridge of Sighs.
Winter preferred a steady groove. He came out on a boogie and left on the same speed. It is no surprise that the most interesting moments were times he slowed down, using the relaxed speed to tinker more with the music. His set's vocals were rejuvenated when he handed the microphone to his drummer for Goin' Down.
The audience was forgiving in the presence of the fleecy-haired blues great. The blues has taken a toll on Winter and, in the process, crippled itself.