Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Winter wows crowd in Calumet

Johnny Winter performs with his favorite guitar, an Erlewine Lazer


A legendary guitarist was complemented by a storied venue during an extraordinary concert in the Copper Country on June 6.

That's when blues icon Johnny Winter gave a jaw-dropping demonstration of his six-string prowess before a full house at the historic Calumet Theatre.

The audience at the elaborate entertainment palace, opened in 1900, roared its approval as the 64-year-old Texas blues champion "axed" his way through a dozen blues masterpieces, fan favorites and covers.

Through the years, my wife Sue and I have seen such blues greats as John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. Fans since the 1970s, we wanted to add Winter to that list.

An albino like his younger brother, Edgar, Winter has held the attention of music fans for decades, even playing at the original Woodstock.

So, when the Upper Peninsula show was announced, we were quick to snap up tickets. In fact, we bought the entire center section of the first row.

We were reminded by theatre officials that many great stars appeared at the Calumet including Douglas Fairbanks, Sarah Bernhart, John Phillip Sousa, Lon Chaney and many others.

Our front row "Johnny Winter fan club" included friends Jennifer Lehmann, Wendy Pepin, Fran Majestic, my sister Laurie Dunlap and her fiance Scott LaVacque.

Marquette's Flat Broke Blues Band put on an entertaining set, but everybody, including the warm-up act, was waiting for Winter to introduce his blues-guitar fireworks to the proceedings.

Despite poor vision and several hip operations, Winter strode on stage unassisted and sat in a folding chair just a few feet in front of us.

From this enviable vantage point, we watched our musical hero perform magic with his Erlewine Lazer guitar, a strange looking instrument possessing a small asymmetrical body and no headstock.

Winter with bassist Scott Spray

With incendiary back-up from guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Tony Beard, Winter powered through Freddie King's chestnut, "Hideaway." The instrumental gave evidence Winter's abilities were intact despite ill health in recent years and a heavy touring schedule, which included an appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park the previous night.

Winter promoted his Grammy-nominated "I'm a Bluesman," album from 2004 with his next selection, giving Lazy Lester's "Sugar Coated Love" an appealing guitar-driven treatment. "She Likes to Boogie Real Low," by Frankie Lee Sims, came next. Winter's guitar burned with every note.

The guitarist played a terrific version of Little Richard's "Miss Ann," a minor crossover hit for the original artist in 1957. Even if Winter's vocals were a bit hard to understand on this number, the audience was intrigued by his uncompromising lead guitar work.

Winter paid tribute to Ray Charles with "Black Jack" and let drummer Beard take the vocals for "I'm Tore Down," a Sonny Thompson composition.

Dressed entirely in black this night, his bare arms illustrated with tattoos, Winter returned to his most recent album of studio material for "Lone Wolf," before spotlighting older songs.

Winter emulated, maybe even channeled, the late Jimi Hendrix with a stinging take on "Red House." Caught up in the amazing intricacies of the tune, a daydreaming audience member might even think it was Hendrix manipulating Winter's guitar.

The scorching "Johnny Guitar," a track Winter wrote with Johnny Watson, came next. The performance was totaling engrossing. With a take on "It's All Over Now," familiar to many as hit by the Rolling Stones, but written by Bobby Womack, Winter left the stage.

Winter used his Gibson Firebird guitar during the encore at Calumet Theatre.

However, the crowd soon brought the bluesman back for a two-song encore.

For this part of the show, Winter switched to his Gibson Firebird guitar, familiar to many fans. He kept the energy level high with some incredible slide work on J. B. Lenoir's "Mojo Boogie," and met many expectations by closing the show with Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."

His slide guitar wizardry and inspired vocals made Winter's interpretation of the Dylan classic the highlight of the evening.

Even though he knew he'd be on the road to Waupaca, Wis., in a few hours, Winter had given his all to the Calumet crowd. The audience, especially those in the front row, loved him for it.

Stage at the Calumet theater

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