Is it a privilege to photograph Johnny Winter?
I must be frank I am not sure any longer.
A famous Italian song translate somehow as “…All heroes are young and beautiful…”. Unconsciously I must have believed it.
I am a blues fan. I was looking forward to this; approaching Johnny Winter is not only the closest I could get to Muddy Waters in 2008 (he played and produced Muddy’s latest albums) he is a key part of blues history in his own.
Winter became one of my legends since a schoolmate passed me a tape with his version of Johnny B. Goode. It was more than 20 years ago, one of the first guitarists I fell in love and one of the reasons I am still in love with this music.
Johnny Winter influence on the blues is substantial. He is the one who picked Texas blues heritage into rockland keeping alive a path paved by the likes of Lightinin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Freddy King. He is the one who inspired Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stevie, a teenager when Jimi and Johnny were changing respectively rock and blues history, needed just a few years to write the ultimate chapter about electric blues guitar.
1969 was his year.
In 1969, after few years in the band of his brother Edgar, the 25th years old Johnny signed with Columbia and published two landmark blues-rock albums.
Johnny Winter his first, is the bluesy one, the one where Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson got an electric restyling.
Second Winter, is the definite ovation. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode rocks as ever and Dylan’s Highway 61 revisited is indeed revisited again. Johnny rousing slide guitar U-turns on Highway 61 and heads Dylan’s masterpiece toward south, back to blues-land. With him, a huge crowd of aficionados follows, charmed by minor pentatonic grooves.
Despite people forgot it, mainly because it is unpublished on official releases, Johnny Winter was on the Woodstock line-up. His long white albino hair, his cowboy hat and the Gibson firebird sunburst guitar are a key figure in the visual imaginary of rock-blues explosion, seen on any stage around that time.
So why such an overwhelming sensation of demise at the Astoria?
When I saw Johnny arriving on stage, barely walking and quickly sitting on a chair, my hero’s icon collapsed in the twinkling of an eye. All the images I had in my mind roll by as if I was looking from a window of a time machine. Today he is an old man, his white long hair the last shiny thing on his shattered face. The years of drugs and excesses all well recorded on his bent, tattooed, skinny body.
I realised that my picture of Johnny Winter was stuck to 1969.
Standing 30 cm away from his frail body, listening to the blues in a quite empty theatre (the balcony was even close) on a 1st of May which had just been a hard working day, condensed so many discouraging truths that my night was permeated by a feeling of misery that didn’t leave me until the morning after.
Inside the Astoria an old man sings and proves that the devil isn’t available to trade for any bluesman’s soul. He plays a music from the past for few people trapped in their past. Audience’s worn-out T-shirts tell stories about their golden age. Beer bellies and the rare, grey, long hair left tell about their present. No much more than a caricature.
Johnny Winter left rock few years ago to play the blues. The concert opens with Freddy King instrumental classic Hideaway, supported by guitarist Paul Nelson, than they carry on as a trio with just drum and bass. His hands play the guitar so instinctively to seem automatic. His eyes stare into the distance, his mind lost in unreachable thoughts. Is the magic of the blues, a music that comes from archetypal regions of bluesmen minds, a music from the inside.
Johnny’s voice is feeble but present, singing the blues is more difficult than playing it, he still sings the blues but looks tired. Instrumental sections are recurrent and fluid.
The concert finds its peaks when immortal hits are played, more Freddy King with I’m Tore down, Jimi Hendrix’s Red House, his own Johnny Guitar and the immortal closure, finally leaving his odd instrument to embark into his “slide journey” on the Gibson firebird for Highway 61 revisited. It’s the end of the night.
Is it the end of blues?
Despite Johnny Winter perseverance, Buddy Guy passion, Eric Clapton fondness and John Mayall love, blues is not living its strongest period.
Willie Dixon’s said “blues is the root everything else is the fruit”, it looks the fruits are blooming but root is desiccating. Few musicians for few people, no youngsters, a difficult future.
I am optimist. I’ll be right here at the Astoria for the Black Keys in a short while, I hope they prove me wrong, I hope the blues can find a renaissance. I hope the rumours that the Astoria might be saved become a certainty.
Go Johnny Go
Johnny B. Goode”
(Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry)
It’s black, it’s old, it’s dirt. What you can reach is filthy and sticky, what you can’t is full of dust and cobwebs.
It has the mixer desk trapped into a odd egg-shaped metal cage.
It has a Keith Moon bar serving junk food but to get there you have to adventure through a maze of stairs.
It has some very wanted tables on the edge of the balcony.
It has stalls with the only bouncing floor I have ever experienced.
It has the oddest basement toilets; saturate with a strong hurine smell, partially hidden by burning incense sticks and cheap perfumes scent. If you go for a wee you’ll meet a man standing down there. He hopes you wash your hands offering soap and a full range of Eau de Cologne for a tip.
It is The Astoria. It is the quintessential rock venue in London.
Since 1927 the most coveted theatre in town. The place you have to play before being considered a real band. A must-play location.
The Astoria hosted the most legendary and raucous gigs in rock history, from Nirvana to the last Manic Street Preachers legendary concert with Richey.
It was recently chosen by U2, Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Manics and Radiohead to play low-key shows.
Photography-wise it has the perfect two thousands people capacity with probably the best photo-pit in London. Large and comfortable, you can move along the stage which is big but not too big, high but not too high.
You get to the pit walking through the stalls, no side entrances. You get out of it after 3 songs and the policy leaves you into the theatre, with your bag. If you got a photo-pass you automatically have the gig for free, no cloakroom, no-one kicking you out.
Bad news, the Astoria is going to be tore down to leave space to a(nother) tube line.
So please join the 37.000 people who already signed the petition to save the Astoria.
London needs the Astoria much more than another train.
[save the astoria]
“The tears burnin’
Tears burnin’ me
Tears burnin’ me way down in my heart
I’m gonna buy this town
I’m gonna buy this town,
Well I wait around the train station
Waitin’ for that train
Waitin’ for the train, yeah
Take me, yeah, from this lonesome place”
(freely adapted from Hear my train a-comin’ – Jimi Hendrix)