Johnny Winter was a 24-year-old legally blind albino kid from Texas when in 1968 Mike Bloomfield introduced him onstage as “the baddest motherfucker.” Winter proved he was just that, bringing his high-voltage blues everywhere from the Fillmore West to Woodstock – often going on ragged, technically astounding tangents. Sadly, it took Winter’s death, at 70 in July, to get casual fans listening again.
Winter’s final album, Step Back, doesn’t always match his early grit – The Johnny Winter Story box set, released earlier this year, is much richer. With guests like Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton and Joe Perry, the new LP draws from the Fifties electric blues Winter heard as a teenager, but it loses some of those recordings’ electric mud, surrounding the guitarist’s ravaged howl with slick production and unimaginative arrangements. “Unchain My Heart,” popularized by Ray Charles, drenches Winter’s sound in backup singers and a Blues Brothers horn section; “Killing Floor” (featuring Paul Nelson) and “Mojo Hand” (with Perry) are largely polished and by-the-numbers. The highlight comes late, when Winter plays a loose solo acoustic take of Son House’s “Death Letter” – a rare understated moment that proves even without his Gibson Firebird, Winter could go back to the Delta with the best of them.