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Johnny Winter dazzles bluesfest crowd with guitar magic

At first it seemed impossible. The guy is 63. He's legally blind. He's hunched over and frail, skinny as a rail. He even had to be led up to his chair on stage. But Johnny Winter has defied the odds, survived, and on Saturday night wowed a packed...

At first it seemed impossible.

The guy is 63. He's legally blind. He's hunched over and frail, skinny as a rail. He even had to be led up to his chair on stage.

But Johnny Winter has defied the odds, survived, and on Saturday night wowed a packed Bayfront Blues Festival with five decades of blues rock magic.

Guitar Johnny sat down for a scorching 10-song set with another two songs for his encore, casting aside any doubts that he still had the magic that made him a blues and rock legend nearly 40 years ago.

Winter was helped up onstage and joined-in during his band's opening instrumental before starting with his own "Hideaway'' and then an old Winter standard, "Sugar Coated Love'' by Lazy Lester. Winter, who still has an amazing vocal range and tried-and-true blues lungs, kept it moving with his own "Boogie Real Low'' followed by another original, "Miss Anne.''

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Winter moved with ease through guitar licks that have inspired generations of blues guitar wannabe's and eventual blues legends. Fans from is own generation, and kids who could be his grandchildren, listened almost awe-struck near the main stage on a warm, cloudless Duluth night.

Winter aced "I'm Tore Down,'' a Freddie King classic, and then blasted out "Lone Wolf,'' a song Winter recorded for his latest album, "I'm a Bluesman" written by producer Tom Hambridge -- a song that proves great new blues is still coming down the pipe.

Winter finished his main set with his always reeling rendition of Muddy Water's "Hoochie Koochie Man'' and then "Johnny Guitar.''

This Texas bluesman who has been through so much -- from multiple addictions to crooked managers and ailing hips and wrists -- clearly showed he's back; a white-haired legend in a big black Stetson.

Blues fan Brad Larson of Minneapolis had seen Winter once before, at Midway Stadium in St. Paul. But this time it was more up close and personal. And Winter was on top of his game.

That, Larson noted, and the ambiance of a perfect Duluth evening and the end of a long, hot, perfect day of blues. And a beer in each hand.

"Look at how old this is. We've been coming up here for years,'' Larson said, holding up a tattered and faded Bayfront Blues Festival travel mug that was holding a cold beverage. "[Winter] is a great act to end the day with. ... The slower acts like [Friday night's headliner Irma] Thomas are okay. But this is how to end a night, rocking out with the blues!''

Tony Rheault of Fargo grew up during the days Winter's songs were playing on FM radio, back in the '60s and '70s. But he had never seen him before Saturday night.

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"I like the old classics like this guy. He's a piece of history,'' Rheault said.

Winter hobbled back on stage for an encore of "Mojo Boogie'' with a big slide guitar and ended the night with his now classic rendition of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61.''

NO PASSPORT, NO PROBLEM

David Gogo of Canada found himself stuck in a Toronto airport Friday night trying to fly into the U.S. so he could get to Duluth for his 6:45 p.m. penultimate act at Bayfront Blues Festival. The only problem is that Gogo didn't have his passport, a requirement to fly into the U.S.

So after a frenzied night of customs hassles, Gogo eventually flew from Toronto to Thunder Bay and then rented a car and drove into the U.S. at Pigeon River since the passport rule isn't in effect yet for driving into the U.S.

His extra guitars ended up in Detroit without him, but Gogo and his band made it to Duluth just fine. He even praised the breakfast he stopped for at a Grand Marais restaurant.

DULUTH LOVES JANIVA

If you counted who the most popular act was at the 19th annual Bayfront Blues Festival by how long their autograph line was after their show, Janiva Magness won hands down.

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Magness, 50, who likes to sing and talk about being a mature woman who has been wronged but still has something to offer, had fans lined up for nearly a city block at the merchandise tent after her scorching, almost sultry Saturday afternoon show at bluesfest.

A Detroit native, Magness has a new CD titled "Bury Him at the Crossroads.'' But it's not that she's an-gry at men, she insists.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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