Because Johnny Winter died just as Step Back was being released there has been much hype surrounding it. I wanted to give an objective review so I first listened to it without reading the liner notes, allowing the music to succeed or fail entirely on its own terms. Afterward I went back and listened to again, this time reading the liner notes. Since then I've listened to it a few times while doing other things, occasionally grabbing a quick glance at the liner notes. Although there is a deluge of Internet comments proclaiming things like "his best album EVER!!!", often without the correct use of capital letters and punctuation, I promise to spare my readers any such sycophantic drivel. This album is for the serious fan.
"Unchain My Heart" kicks off the album. The Blues Brothers horns are cool and the backing vocals are an interesting change of pace for a JW album but the secret weapon is Mike Dimeo's Hammond B3 organ. Adds the perfect touch. Paul Nelson does all the guitar work, rhythm and fills, except for Johnny's solo in the middle. Although Nelson deserves much credit for getting Winter back on track his guitar sound is generic and Johnny's guitar less distinct than usual.
Elmore James' "Can't Hold Out" is the first gem. Winter and Ben Harper sound like they're having a good ol' time and the rhythm section grooves the way a shuffle should. Magic Sam's "Don't Want No Woman" with Eric Clapton moves along at nice pace. Winter and Clapton take turns on the fills and you have to pay attention to figure out who's playing what. The Howlin' Wolf chestnut "Killing Floor" doesn't feature any big name guests but is a credible rendition. This far into the album there's nothing spectacular, just fun music which is good enough. For me the significance of it being his last album is that it's fun music. What better way to end than having fun right back where you started? The wheel doesn't necessarily need to be reinvented.
Johnny reclaims "Who Do You Love" from George Thorogood and brings it back to Bo Diddley's neighborhood. And it's one of the coolest songs on the album. Once again there are no big name guests, however it's the not-so-famous guests who add depth to the album. In this case backing vocalist Meredith Dimenna. Gatemouth Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp" is a highlight. This instrumental Jump Blues bounces with life. Johnny plays some of his best licks and kicks Brian Setzer up the arse. Setzer rises to the occasion and even gets the last word in. The Blues Brothers horns make another appearance and especially shine on this one.
"Where Can You Be" begins the descent into what can only be called "white boy Blues" territory. Winter and Billy Gibbons get off some good licks, and it's cool to hear them together, but the guitars are somewhat generic and the groove is very much the Rock version of a shuffle. I can understand the commercial appeal of songs such as this but my preferences run towards the swinging and the shuffling. If you prefer straight Blues over the more Rock-oriented material then this take on B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen" is a desecration. Joe Bonamassa, the current darling of the BluesRock guitarslinger idiom whom I find to be a depressingly flaccid player, straight up overplays. When Johnny Winter plays a million notes it sounds like a torrential outpouring that he can't hold back; the damn has burst and it's raining Blues. Bonamassa sounds like he's getting paid by the note and his bills are overdue. It's unmusical wanking; he's showing off because he got to play on a Johnny Winter album and now I like him even less than I already did. Low point of the album, this one also reveals a chink in the armor. The album was tracked; record the backing tracks first then add in other parts, guests' parts were recorded elsewhere and 'flown in'. Nowhere on the album is this evident as much as the stop-time ending here. It feels rushed and choppy. For comparison listen to B.B. doing it.
After the previous track Johnny's solo performance on Son House's "Death Letter" redeems the album. Yes, you can hear that his chops have diminished. Doesn't matter. This is Johnny Winter at the end of a long career. Then naked guitar/vocal recording is intimate and personal. At 70 he's earned Blind Melon Chitlin' status, rough around the edges adds to the charm. Winter often said he preferred Blues over Jazz because it was less technical and more immediate, more about feel. That's exactly what this performance is. We get hear the unadulterated musician by himself without any props and it's perfect, warts and all. Hands down one of my personal favorites on the album and I wish there would have been more like it.
Little Walter's "My Babe" with Jason Ricci on harp is another fun Blues number characteristic of the album. People forget in this post-politically-correct age of electronica that Blues is drinkin' an' dancin' music. The beauty of the album is that Winter takes it right back there where it belongs. These songs are the reason guys like him and myself picked up a guitar in the first place. Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" is a delightful surprise. With Leslie West as the big-name guest I was dreading a pentatonic wank-fest but thankfully that's not the case. Johnny plays the first solo, Leslie the second, and both are well phrased and concise. And the song moves like a 50's rocker should. If your woman doesn't shake her ass when you put this on get rid of her!
When I heard that Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand" was going to be on this album I was eager with anticipation. Lightnin' was an important influence on me and a lot of my guitar heroes, including but not limited to Johnny Winter. We all came outta Lightnin' Hopkins! And it was one of the first songs I learned when I started on guitar. However, this rendition disappointed me. Once again we're back in "white boy Blues" territory. It's fine at a bike rally or when drinking with people you have to pry away from Classic Rock radio (in the second case it's definitely an improvement) but for those of us who are not only Johnny Winter fans but also listen to the same guys he listened to it's a bit flat. I would have preferred he record it on acoustic same as the Son House number.
Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" with Dr. John on piano closes out both the album and Johnny Winter's life and career perfectly. Once again he takes the music out of the museum and back where it belongs. One of the most fun songs on the album. Blues and early Rock 'n' Roll aren't much different. It's good time music and after more than half a century of playing professionally including over 40 years in the big time Johnny Winter ends by coming full circle. Whenever I listen this one that same indescribable feeling that caught me and many of my heroes before me when we were kids is fresh and present.
The album stands up just fine on its own and the gimmicks merely detract. Besides big-name guitar guests who add little if anything somebody, presumably in the marketing department, came up with the bright idea to include a pick with the CD, five different colors with a limited-to-5000 in pearl. Complete and utter nonsense. Winter played with a thumbpick and these are flatpicks with his autograph reproduced on one side. But that's no reason to opt for buying the download instead. The 6-panel CD wallet is well designed and has a center piece under the middle panel that pushed the disc in when you close it and brings it part way out when you open it.
The unsung heroes of this album are bassist Scott Spray, drummer Tommy Curiale and keyboardist Mike DiMeo. The rhythm section is solid throughout and the keys add a nice touch. The other guitarists are really only there for star power. With the exception of a Brian Setzer none of them stand out. Paul Nelson played most of the guitars, including many of the fills you would expect Johnny to be playing, and the standard formula is Johnny-1st solo/(insert guest name here)-second solo. The best songs are the straight Blues and the early Rock 'n' Roll numbers. The not-so-great ones are the very-commercial Rock stuff. All in all it's a good, listenable album as well as a fitting close to his life and career. If you're a Johnny Winter fan you'll be glad you bought it.