We love the idea of an improbable return to prominence on the way out the door, of an emotional comeback completed just before fate closes its hand around a legend’s heart. We love it when an unjustly forgotten figure finally gets his due, when someone receives roses while they’re still above terra firma.
And, for Johnny Winter, it was all true. Beginning perhaps with 2011’s throwback project Roots, and certainly confirmed with a career-spanning retrospective that preceded his untimely passing, Winter began a return to a spotlight that had moved elsewhere while he struggled with substance abuse in the aftermath of his initial burst of fame.
Of course, in the meantime, a retro craze had billowed up around him, making stars of lesser talents from the same era. Winter, however, remained a shadowy figure: Referenced, but not often present. News, then, that he would be participating in a multi-artist project — appropriately titled Step Back, and arriving hard on the heels of the 56-track, four-CD True to the Blues — could only mean one thing: It was, finally, Winter’s time again.
Surely, with big names like Eric Clapton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons Joe Bonamassa, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Dr. John and Ben Harper on board, nothing could stop Winter’s belated reascension. History, unfortunately, had other plans. Winter’s sudden July death at 70, still unexplained, came too soon for a long-hoped-for coronation.
He richly deserved it, as Step Back (issued Tuesday on Megaforce) makes clear. Not just because he could attract so many stars for a collaborative effort, but that he — more often than not — upstages them, time and time and time again. He sounds a tough and engaged as he has in decades. Winter was, in the end, the embodiment of the third-act triumph, even if the curtain fell before he had a chance to bask in a final standing ovation.