Johnny Winter was simply one of those guys who was always fixin’ to die. A legendary figure with an appetite for everything that is dangerous, he lived life to the fullest. Sadly, his last gig, at the wonderfully intimate Cahors Blues Festival in France saw a less than wild, stirring performance. The ghosts were waiting in the wings.
Winter squinted, in his usual way, at the audience— a rapturous turn out that worshiped the man and his music. Running through a back catalog of challenging, raw emotion and stylistic guitar, he wooed the crowd, pulling tricks from his famous hat with aplomb, though sadly at times, difficulty.
Winter was clearly struggling with the high, humid temperatures (34 Celsius) and the demands of an adulating, admiring audience. His coordination was at times shaky, but it has often been that way, a part of his special magic. His voice seemed rocky and stretched. But again, what’s new? The guy was seventy. Nevertheless, he managed to play well over an hour under flashing strobes and baking, airless heat on his trembling feet. People were forgiving, happy to see the man in action and get a taste of his old personal mojo magic.
Despite his evident pleasure at being onstage, slamming and sliding his guitar like a kid, he always had the appearance of a guy on the edge – of an abyss, a musical cliff top, of life itself. It’s easy to say a throwaway line. Blues music is jam-packed with great lyrics about death, or “passing” as bluesmen often won’t opt to euphemistically say. On this day, Winter’s final gig, he was certainly “Knockin’ on Heaven’s [or more likely, Hell’s] Door.”
It’s perhaps fitting that his last gig was on an enormously important and symbolic day of celebration: July 14th. France’s National Day, Bastille Day, a celebration of French independence, strength, liberation and freedom. A night when many did it all in excess: drink, drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, fan-worship, explosive firework displays. Full on festivities. Like July 4th on acid.
I think he would’ve loved the symbolism and significance. Always assuming that he realized what was going down, of course. After repeated encores, Johnny Winter took it to the limit one last time.
– Iain Patience