There have been some great blues brothers over the years. The legendary Gregg and Duane Allman for example, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie, and of course, Johnny and Edgar Winter. Edgar says that he and big brother Johnny were even closer than most siblings, due to their shared love of, and participation in, the Texan blues-rock they helped to define, and also because of their shared albinism. The pale-skinned pair with the flowing, snow-white hair were as distinctive to look at as they were to hear, and became two of the coolest rockers ever seen. Johnny could play multiple instruments, but was associated mostly with the guitar, especially bottleneck slide, while Edgar became a master of such diverse disciplines as boogie piano and rocking saxophone. Johnny, always the thinnest and frailest-looking of the two, passed away in his sleep in 2014 at the age of 70, while on a tour of Europe – it has taken Edgar, nearly three years his junior, seven years to manage to bring himself to organise this emotional tribute set. Every track in the 75-minute album has been associated with Johnny in some way, as a regular fixture in his set, or an influential number in its own right. Edgar and Quarto Valley Records have also mustered a stellar cast of musicians who have been inspired by, or worked with Johnny, and the result is a powerful avalanche of classic standards played by top-notch bluesmen, along with some great liner notes by Edgar.
Mean Town Blues opens the set, an up-tempo hard rocker in George Thorogood style, with Joe Bonamassa doing a rare turn on slide guitar; this is followed by Kenny Wayne Shepherd blasting out the guitar on the catchy Still Alive And Well. Most of the album is electric blues-rock, with a few old-time acoustic blues numbers dropped in – Keb’ Mo’ plays acoustic resonator guitar and bass on the stripped-down Lone Star Blues, as well as duetting with Edgar on vocals. The first major highlight is probably the band’s rocking version of Johnny’s signature song Johnny B. Goode, with Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh on lead vocals, while Texan Dave Grissom takes the guitar parts. Edgar adds his own vocals, and also dubs in an excellent sax solo, but the whole thing is really driven along by his rocking piano backing. There’s a great rendition of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited too, which was a part of Johnny’s set, quite possibly because of the lyric passage that mentions his complexion being ‘too white’!
None other than the late lamented Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins takes the lead vocal on the Led-Zeppish Guess I’ll Go Away, while the maudlin end-of-evening blues Drown In My Own Tears introduces a five-part horn section to the proceedings. Self Destructive Blues is a riffy, rocking pub jam and one the best numbers on the album, with Joe Bonamassa on guitar and vocals. Probably the best number for this reviewer though, not least because of the nostalgic pub-blues memories it evokes, is their gloriously spirited rendition of Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Workin’, with vocals and some great, screaming harp from Bobby Rush, the only harmonica appearance in the entire set. Edgar rounds off the tribute with an emotional, specially-written ballad named End Of The Line, in which he sings the first half accompanied by nothing but his piano. It’s a great song, bolstered as it goes on by a 4-piece string section, then with drums and bass in the second half.
Well over 30 musicians are involved in this lavish production; in addition to the above-mentioned, look out for appearances from Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule, Michael McDonald from The Doobie Brothers, Phil X from Bon Jovi, Steve Lukather from Toto, Derek Trucks, Robben Ford and even Ringo Starr. Gregg Bissonette carries most of the drum work, with the bass split between Bob Glaub and Sean Hurley. Many of the parts were recorded by the various artists at sundry locations during the lockdown; produced by Edgar Winter and Ross Hogarth, it walks the line between modern, high-quality recording and a raw, live sound, exactly as it should do. The musicianship is tight and solid, without anyone ever showing off; some of these guitarists are capable of some decent shredding, but they keep everything reined in, staying as close to Johnny’s sound as reasonably possible. Edgar shows himself as an excellent keyboard player, while hardly ever taking a solo, and a great sax player too, while only getting it out of its case for two numbers. The album thus manages to successfully fulfil both of its main tasks – to be a set crammed full of classic, rocking blues, without ever drifting from the path of being a tribute to Johnny Winter – RIP.
Brother Johnny is available on CD, vinyl and digitally across all platforms from April 15, 2022.