Review - James Cotton, Johnny Winter
James Cotton, Johnny Winter
The Egg, June 25
When James Cotton was 9, he duped blues harp legend Sonny Boy Williamson II into teaching him harmonica by claiming he was an orphan. Ten years later he had left his native Mississippi for Chicago and was playing with Muddy Waters in the world’s greatest blues band.
Johnny Winter also learned when he was young, and as a kid in Texas saw Waters and other great bluesmen as they passed through. Discovered in 1968 by Mike Bloomfield, the incandescent albino guitarist was invited to play a song at a Bloomfield jam session that December and was signed to Columbia Records a few days later.
their successful careers, time has been tough on both of them: Cotton is
a cancer survivor, and Winter, cross-eyed to begin with, a recovering
heroin addict. Both appeared worn last Friday at a full Egg, but their
infirmities didn’t stop them and their crack bands from thrilling the
crowd with the gritty, soul-soaked sounds that only masters of American
roots music can create.
Cotton, 75, went on first with an armload of 1950s blues classics drawn largely from his former boss’s playlist. Unable to sing since a 1994 surgery for throat cancer, he brought along Dallas-born crooner Darrell Nulisch to handle the vocals.
After the de rigueur warm-up instrumental from the band, Cotton opened with Muddy Waters’ “Blow, Wind Blow.” His phrasing was precise and economical, and he had the gorgeous, deep tone so hard to get from a harmonica.
Winter, 66, followed with fabulous, furious playing. Using a thumbpick and his right hand fingers instead of the usual flatpick, the guitar hero’s high-voltage style was anchored in the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His singing, though, was an alloyed pleasure—often hoarse and off-key, but nevertheless so sweet-timbred and full of verve you had to like it anyway.
Winter’s set was more eclectic than Cotton’s. He delivered slow blues with blistering intensity on Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House,” never overplaying nor oversimplifying the music. On John Lee Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” he revved up the old chestnut with bodacious, shrieking up-the-neck lead work. He encored with his similarly over-the top-version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61.”
The night’s only real disappointment was that Cotton didn’t stick around to sit in with Winter at the end of the show. Winter called early on for the harpmeister to join him onstage, but Cotton had already left the building. Too bad.
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