Second Winter, Johnny Winter's second album for Columbia, originally had the distinction of being the only album in rock history that was a three-sided double LP. Musically, 35 years after its original release, Second Winter is still an oddity. Issued by Sony's Legacy division, the set has been painstakingly remastered, and expanded by bonus cuts and an entire disc of live material. It's too bluesed-out to be a pure rock record, and too psychedelically dimensioned to be a pure blues album. Tommy Shannon calls it "power blues." And as for whatever else passed for blues-rock at the time – Cream, Hendrix, Canned Heat, etc. – forget it. This set is a whole different animal. Cut in Nashville with all tracks begin done within one or two takes, the energy of Second Winter is undeniable. The sheer range of styles Winter assaulted in his restless quest is astonishing too.
Johnny Winter returns to major-label distribution for the first time in eight years with The Winter of '88, released by Voyager Records via MCA. This is a project produced and engineered by Terry Manning, who also contributed some keyboards, and Manning's intent seems to have been to move Winter in a more commercial direction, specifically toward the synth-enhanced boogie of ZZ Top. That effect is particularly notable on the lead-off track, "Close to Me," and on "Show Me"; otherwise, Manning is more subtle. Still, after three straight blues albums for the independent Alligator Records label, Winter had established a pure blues pedigree, and a move back toward the mainstream may not sit well with his more purist fans. It isn't really that overt, for the most part, but this is clearly a more highly produced, more commercially intended record than any Winter has made since he left the CBS Records subsidiary Blue Sky after Raisin' Cain in 1980.
After two late-'60s albums on Columbia, Johnny Winter hit his stride in 1970 working with Rick Derringer and the McCoys, now recruited as his sidemen and collaborators (and proving with just about every note here how far they'd gotten past "Hang on Sloopy"). In place of the bluesy focus on his first two albums, Winter extended himself into more of a rock-oriented mode here, in both his singing and his selection of material. This was hard rock with a blues edge, and had a certain commercial smoothness lacking in his earlier work. Derringer's presence on guitar and as a songwriter saw to it that Winter's blues virtuosity was balanced by perfectly placed guitar hooks, and the two guitarists complemented each other perfectly throughout as well.
Winter's debut album for Columbia was also arguably his bluesiest and best. Straight out of Texas with a hot trio, Winter made blues-rock music for the angels, tearing up a cheap Fender guitar with total abandon on tracks like "I'm Yours and I'm Hers," "Leland Mississippi Blues," and perhaps the slow blues moment to die for on this set, B.B. King's "Be Careful with a Fool." Winter's playing and vocals have yet to become mannered or clichéd on this session, and if you've ever wondered what the fuss is all about, here's the best place to check out his true legacy.
Johnny Winter begins Raisin' Cain, his ninth studio album since signing to CBS Records in 1969 (his records are now issued on the Blue Sky subsidiary), with "The Crawl," a rock & roll dance tune, and he ends it with "Walkin' Slowly," which employs a Fats Domino-style New Orleans rhythm and the saxophone work of Tom Strohman. The two songs serve to reinforce Winter's allegiance to his roots in ‘50s rock, which define him as much as his blues work. In between these bookends, he presents his usual mixture of familiar cover songs and specially written (by others, that is) material, all of which serves, as usual, to showcase his fast-fingered lead guitar playing. His slide guitar dominates "Sittin' in the Jail House," for example, while much of the disc's second side is played in a Chicago blues style that recalls his recent efforts as producer to give Muddy Waters a late-career renaissance, notably the side-opening performance of Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'." A notable inclusion is a cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".