The Fins frontman Dave Chisholm opening for Johnny Winter. Photo by Bruce Law.
By Steve Newton
The Commodore Ballroom is one of the best places in Vancouver to see a concert. Back in the seventies, before I started working as a music writer for the Georgia Straight, I would make the one-hour trek from my hometown of Chilliwack to see bands like Kiss, Sammy Hagar, Molly Hatchet, and Tom Petty play there.
The awesome gigs continued once I got hired by the Straight and started scoring free reviewer tickets for shows: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Gov’t Mule, the Stray Cats, the Beat Farmers, the Darkness, the Tragically Hip.
And then there was the one and only Johnny Winter, who tore the place up one September night in 1987.
Vancouver blues-rocker Dave Chisholm also saw Johnny that night. In fact, his hard-working band the Fins actually opened for the albino stringbender. So for all you hardcore Johnny Winter (and the Fins) fans, here’s his recollection of that gig:
“We got the Johnny Winter show,” said Matt, who had just found out by reading the concert listings in the Georgia Straight. Matt worked for the Straight doing deliveries. He was also the band’s connection to Drew Burns, the legendary owner-operator of the Commodore Ballroom. Drew never told us, he just listed it in the Georgia Straight: he knew we would cancel any gig to play the Commodore, and he was right. The show was on September 18th, nineteen eighty-seven.
The Commodore was the best place to play, and Drew Burns was the most excellent owner. The Fins had previously opened five shows at the Commodore, all career highlights, but Johnny Winter was a legendary blues-rock guitarist and a bonafide superstar. He was a personal favourite of ours and a significant influence. Johnny played at Woodstock; he is one of the greatest guitarists ever and has a distinctive and unique style.
The band was Matt Steffich and Elio Martelli on guitar, Chris Meister on drums, Budd Marr on bass, and I played harmonica and sax. We all did lead vocals except Chris. This unit was the longest-serving version of the Fins; we were tight both musically and personally. Before showtime, Drew approached Matt and me and asked if we could play the whole night. Unfortunately, Johnny was in a bad way (draw your own conclusions), and it looked like he might not get across the border. Drew said they would refund the ticket money but hoped we could keep the crowd. “I will make it worth your while,” he said. Drew Burns was a man of his word. Of course we could; this was an excellent opportunity.
On the second song the crowd started chanting “Johnny! Johnny!” The place was packed, and there were very few women; Johnny’s crowd is a rough and rowdy bunch. So I stopped the band mid-song. “Johnny’s at the border,” I said, “This Johnny shit has to stop right now.” The crowd went quiet. “So, do you want us to rock until Johnny shows?” The crowd cheered mildly, so I shouted into the mic: “Do you want to rock till Johnny gets here?!” The crowd exploded.
“No more ‘Johnny, Johnny’,” I said, and we kicked into our set. The band put on a great show; we got word that Johnny was on his way. Still, we played for a thousand rowdy fans for an hour-and-a-half. Everybody had a chance to shine; it was a great moment for the five of us. Music and friendship are a powerful combination; it all came together that night.
A couple of notes: I wore my custom-tailored gold suit for the first time that night, and some guy standing in the front row shouted, “Cool suit!” It was Steve Kozak, who became a good friend years later. Donna Hagerman, my band photographer, who later became my wife, was sick and got her friend Bruce Law to photograph the show. Drew paid us handsomely and thanked me for my intervention with the crowd. It was a special moment for my friendship with Matt; he was never happier. Unfortunately, both Chris and Matt have passed in the last couple of years.
Steve Newton covered the show for the Georgia Straight. Steve was a good friend of Matt’s, and he did an article on the Fins in 1983 when we were playing at the Marble Arch. The following is an excerpt from the write-up. “After a well-received opening set by local party band The Fins, Winter took to the stage. Winter may have the fastest right thumb in rock, and when you buy a ticket to one of his shows, you get every nickel’s worth of notes.”
Of course, Johnny shook off whatever was holding him back and played and sang as a man possessed. Raw and emotional, his blistering riffs and searing slide sent chills. His vocals were indistinguishable from his heavy guitar riffs. The massive road manager/security guard told us to stay away from Johnny, so we did. Johnny Winter was a legend, and my band opened for him, which is pretty cool. However, I did not meet him, so there was no real connection.
This night the band stepped up to a challenge, bound by love and friendship. Budd, Chris, Elio, Matt and myself put down a rebellion and rocked a thousand people; it created a buzz and brought us some good gigs. Drew Burns had faith in us, and we delivered.
The Fins guitarist Elio Martelli opening for Johnny Winter. Photo by Bruce Law.
The Fins guitarist Matt Steffich (left) and Dave Chisholm opening for Johnny Winter. Photo by Bruce Law.
Johnny Winter at the Commodore Ballroom, September 18, 1987. Photo by Charles Campbell.