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updated: 3/16/2011 10:56 AM

Johnny Winter brings renewed energy to Viper Alley show

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  • After finally coming clean, Johnny Winter is touring and working on a new CD.

    After finally coming clean, Johnny Winter is touring and working on a new CD.
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By Gregory Harutunian

Echoing the title of his mid-1970s LP "Still Alive and Well," Johnny Winter is now much more than that. This year marks the first time in four decades that the venerable guitarist is clean and sober, and the renewed energy has gone right back into his playing.

"Yeah! I feel great," said Winter during a phone conversation. "The (detoxification) program started about four years ago, and ended last Christmas with the best present ever. I'm really enjoying myself, playing music, touring and working on some record projects coming up."

Winter is scheduled to hit Lincolnshire's Viper Alley stage for an 8:15 p.m. Thursday, March 24, show with his longtime band consisting of Vito Liuzzi (drums), Paul Nelson (guitar) and Scott Spray (bass). News of his sobriety was included as a separate item in booking packages from his publicity firm.

"It's miraculous, the change in him, he's gained weight and having fun, joking around ... his wife tells me she's happy to have her husband back," said Paul Nelson, the band's tour manager and second guitarist. "Even five years ago, you're talking about a man addicted to alcohol, pain killers and heroin. At the worst points, he was withdrawn, his health was in danger. So somebody had to take the bull by the horns."

Nelson is responsible for setting up the necessary intervention and medical supervision while researching a specific methadone program where the drug was delivered over a prolonged period of time through steadily decreasing dosages, as a way to decrease withdrawal symptoms. He also made sure Winter adhered to the program.

"There was some resistance, yes, and we had to work on each addiction individually -- the painkillers, alcohol, and then, the big one," Nelson said. "Last Christmas, we gave him a present, one of those boxes in a box gags. It had one of his capsules inside, and he broke it open. It was empty. Naturally, he was confused until we told him that's what he'd been taking for the last few months, he was now totally clean."

The Texas-born Winter, 67, had other words. "I was surprised, amazed, the best Christmas present I ever got. What a thing to give somebody. Every day is a new sunrise. We'll be playing Europe, and some blues festivals, after this short tour in the states."

Projects on the horizon include a new CD of songs that helped shape his early taste in regional music on the Megaforce label, and a guest appearance on William Shatner's in-the-works CD, a thematic cycle of songs with science-fiction connections. Winter's contribution will be appear on the Deep Purple tune "Space Truckin'."

"I love 'Star Trek.' I'm going to go into the studio and do some nasty slide guitar on that track," Winter said. "I still play slide on the old Thunderbird (guitar). It's got that warm, scrappy sound. I use another guitar, too, but the slide is fun and makes people happy."

Winter came to prominence in 1969, when he was signed by Columbia Records and Rolling Stone Magazine observed that "he plays notes faster than it takes some people to think." His legacy ranges from appearing at the first two Woodstock festivals, numerous albums and collaborations, legendary live shows, and helping revitalize the career of Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters in the late 1970s.

"I love Muddy. I just love him. He was a good man," he said. "We produced some albums for him and toured with him and some other great blues people. It was a great time in my life."

Winter is having another great time in his life and looking forward to the rest of the year.

"It's always a treat to come back to Chicago. And all I can tell the people is come on out and have some fun with us."