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Bringing back memories

Johnny Winter wasn't trying to be funny or sarcastic.

"I don't remember the whole thing," the veteran blues-rocker said. "But I do remember going to sleep in the press trailer on a bag of garbage."

Winter's vague recollection - humorists use such expressions as a stereotypically spacey way to characterize the '60s hippie era - is dimmed by the 40 years that have passed since he performed at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on Aug. 17, 1969.

"We'd played some big festivals before," said Winter, a singer, songwriter and influential guitar player who headlines Saturday's Sonora Music Festival at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds. "But Woodstock was the biggest we'd ever played."

Not many people recall that. Winter, 24 at the time, and his band (including younger brother Edgar) didn't make the final cut for "Woodstock," the 1970 film that transported millions to the muddy, rainy, druggy fields of Max Yasgur's farm near Bethel, N.Y., where an estimated 500,000 had gathered on Aug. 15 to 17, 1969.

There was no CNN, MTV or Internet back then.

Winter, 65, is making up for it now with what his manager calls a "huge resurgence."

Part of his band's 1969 performance, which started just after midnight, has been restored in a three-DVD, 40th anniversary "director's cut" of "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music."

"That's real nice," Winter said in a soft Texas twang during a recent phone conversation from his tour bus in Seattle. "It makes me think of Woodstock. I'm glad about that. My manager (then) didn't think it (being in the movie) was a good idea. That's the biggest mistake he ever made."

"The Woodstock thing came out of the blue," said Paul Nelson, Winter's manager the past four years and a guitar player in his band since 2000. "Either: a) nobody knew Johnny was even there, or b) that there was a YouTube version of it.

"Johnny said these two kids were there (Woodstock) with a camera. Turns out they were part of the documentary film crew. His management was kind of backward."

On a historic weekend that documented musical and cultural diversity on an unprecedented scale, the images of two albino brothers from Beaumont, Texas, raucously grinding out authentic-sounding Delta/Chicago blues would have been striking.

Winter's full, eight-song, 65-minute performance has been reissued as part of Sony/Legacy's "The Woodstock Experience" series. The two-CD package includes Winter's self-titled 1969 debut album.

"Oh, yeah, it makes me feel real good," Winter said of the 40-year-old music's restoration. "I'm real happy about that record ('Johnny Winter'). It's real good."

Two Winter tracks ("Leland Mississippi Blues" and "Mean Town Blues") are included on "Woodstock 40 Years on: Back to Yasgur's Farm," a six-CD box set that will be released by Rhino Records on Tuesday.

There's more.

In "Back to the Garden, the Story of Woodstock," a mix of oral and written history by Pete Fornatale, a New York radio DJ, a chapter is devoted to Winter.

He's also featured in "Muddy Waters: Live at ChicagoFest," a 56-minute DVD of a 1981 outdoor show held two years before Waters' death at 70 in 1983. The DVD was released April 21.

"That Muddy DVD. I was really happy with that," said Winter, who produced three of the mighty Waters' albums. "That was great. I really didn't know it was out there. He's a great friend. Just a great guy. I loved working with Muddy. It's definitely the highlight. He's always been one of my favorite people."

That goes all the way back to when Winter was 18, defying the dangers of segregation in Beaumont's volatile racial environment by hanging out and playing in bars where black blues and R&B ruled.

Famously, he challenged B.B. King to let him play at the Raven Club. King did. Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and Bobby Bland were next.

Winter had formed his first band (the Jammers) when he was 14 and Edgar (piano) was 11. He ultimately moved to Houston.

In 1968, an article in Rolling Stone magazine raved about Winter ("Imagine a 130-pound, cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard").

Winter began his ascent and joined a rock and roll pantheon of powerful blues players, from Eric Clapton to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

That's documented on "The Johnny Winter Anthology," a two-CD, 35-track compilation released May 25 that includes his signature tunes ("Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," "Still Alive and Well," "Silver Train").

"You know, it's all good," said Nelson, a graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music who's helping restore Winter's recorded legacy with a series of "Bootleg" releases (five so far), instructional DVDs and other materials. "We've out-bootlegged the bootleggers. It's great. He's stopped all the drugs and drinking and crap. He's singing his butt off and having a huge resurgence.

"It's nice to see him heathy. He's gained weight. He's walking onstage again, but he's sitting to play because he had some hip problems back in the day. Now he's going like an 18-year-old. Johnny's got a great line: 'I'm making a comeback but I never went anywhere.' "

Except maybe back to the Woodstock garden for a few fond recollections.

"I just had a lot of fun being able to watch probably the biggest festival ever held," Winter said. "Definitely. It's real nice. It brings back good memories."...

by Tony Sauro
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