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Can a White Man Play the Blues?

Roadwork by Edgar Winter's White Trash Epic Records. KEG 31249

By Henry W. Mcgee iii

CAN A WHITE man play the blues? The answer, of course, depends on what we call the blues. If we define it simply as a twelve-bar progression with an a-a-b rhyming pattern then it is possible for any good musician to "play the blues." But the blues deserves a broader definition, for the blues is much more than a musical form. The blues is communication of an experience, and that experience is unique to black people. It is the experience of being free yet still being a slave, the experience of having the potential but not the opportunity.

With increasing frequency though, many white musicians are claiming that they too can play the blues, that they too have an experience to communicate. That white musicians have something to say can not be doubted; the problem is that many white musicians feel that they have the same things to say as black musicians. Therefore they adapt a black idiom, the blues, and try to make their music as black as possible. This imitation of black music runs along a continuum beginning with the Beatles at one end, the Rolling Stones toward the middle and Eric Burdon and Elvis Presley at the furthest extreme. No white musician, however, has been as successful in this pursuit as albino bluesman Edgar Winter, for Winter has done what all the imitators have longed to do--he has played at the Apollo Theater in New York, the Mecca of the black music world.

Roadwork, the latest album by Edgar Winter and his group, White Trash, contains several songs recorded at their Apollo performance. Winter's show had all the trappings of an old time R 'n' B show--plenty of brass (Marshall Cyr and Mike McLellan, trumpets, and Jon Smith and Jerry LaCroix, saxophones), a hard-driving rhythm section borrowed from his brother Johnny's band (Randy Hobbs, bass, and Bobby Ramirez, drums) and guitarist Rick Derringer, also from Johnny's band. The material was presented faithfully and with polish and included Stevie Wonder's "Do Yourself a Favor," the old Rhythm and Blues standard "Turn On Your Love Light" and a syncopated winter original "Cool Fool," Winter, who plays piano and sex, also has one of the blackest voices in the business and had no problem interpreting the material.

BUT IF interpretation was not Winter's problem, communication was, for he was trying to tell the audience about their experience--and they weren't buying. Oh, they clapped alright, but one senses that the applause was for Winter's novelty rather than his performance.

It's in the novelty of Winter's performance at the Apollo that we find hope, for it represents another step in the blending of musical currents. As the black audience becomes more psychedelicized and the white audience becomes more soulful perhaps there will be a common meeting ground, and the centuries of difference will yield a powerful new music form. For now, we can listen to Edgar Winter at the Apollo and B. B. King at the Fillmore, and the Temptations, well, we can catch them at the Copacabana. And we must be content with these exploratory forays that are being made by both races.

The Apollo performance covers only one side of Roadwork. The remainder of the two-L.P. set is devoted to performances of White Trash on its home ground--the Whiskey A Go Go in L.A. and the Academy of Music in New York. Here the band has both form and substance, performance and communication.

The material is mostly good-time rock and roll and rhythm and blues. There's a nice version of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." where Rick Derringer takes over the vocals, and all of Side Three is turned over to Winter's show-stopping version of "Tobacco Road."

The high point of the album is the guest appearance of Edgar's brother Johnny. When Johnny walked on stage the brass section left so what remained was essentially his own hand. Johnny Winter's group--which EdgarVonee played with--is generally considered one of the tightest and most powerful groups around, so it's no surprise that "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" turned out to be devastating. While Johnny reeled off volley after volley of notes, the rest of the band seemed to be having the time of their lives providing the surging rhythm pattern that makes the song move. The performance easily equalled any of the brothers' other collaborations.

Roadwork is not an important musical statement, nor is it carefully crafted artistry. It is instead a loud, brash and bold experiment. Sometimes it falls, sometimes it works. We can do nothing but hope for more.

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