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Eric Johnson unleashes signature guitar sounds at Kent Stage

Eric Johnson at Kent Stage on August 3, 2014


It’s hard to describe Eric Johnson’s rapid-fire guitar style without resorting to meteorological metaphors. You hear his fingers racing over and across the strings on records like Ah Via Musicom (1990) and 1996’s Venus Isle (1996)—their movements eliciting torrents and flurries of 16th notes—and can’t help but think of lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

Eric John at Kent Stage on August 3, 2014
Peter M. Roche
Eric Johnson at Kent Stage
Peter M. Roche

The Kent Stage didn’t have to board its windows to prepare for the guitarist’s gig Sunday night, but anyone caught inside during Johnson’s performance was buffeted by a blues-rock storm of biblical proportions.

Johnson makes it appear so effortless, too. His technique is beguilingly brilliant, giving listeners and viewers the (very mistaken) impression that hey, you could do this too if you tried. But guitarists can’t improve without an instrument in their hands any more than a golfer can rectify his swing without wielding a club.

Johnson’s had a guitar in his hands nearly every day since boyhood. Trained on piano as a child, the Austin native took up guitar after his first brush with The Beatles. Unlike other aspiring rockers who followed the British Invasion, however, Johnson embraced an incorporated myriad styles in his practice regimen—including jazz and country—and becoming a night club sensation by age thirteen. Johnson jammed with the psychedelic band Mariani and fusion greats The Electromagnets before cutting a solo album in the late ‘70s. A couple tracks on Seven Worlds would be recycled later, after Johnson’s “discovery” by industry bigwigs like Prince and Christopher Cross.

Johnson kept honing his chops, guesting on albums by Carole King, Richard Marx, Chet Atkins, Steve Miller, and B.B. King, but it wasn’t until 1990’s Ah Via Musicom that the guitarist made a significant solo splash. The instrumental tour de force “Cliffs of Dover” was a breakout hit—and rare instrumental on the Billboard charts—and became something of a calling card. Where most popular rock songs (vocal or instrumental) draw power from one memorable guitar part, “Cliffs” packed in a whopping six or seven.

Suddenly Johnson’s music was on radio and MTV and his image was plastered on magazine covers. After years of toil and trouble, he could hardly be considered an overnight sensation—but it seemed that way to folks just catching on to his six-string sleight of hand: It’d take a while for some to figure out that Musicom wasn’t Johnson’s first album.

Eric teamed with fellow guitar greats Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on the inaugural G3 Tour and resulting live album, and followed Musicom with the acclaimed Venus Isle. A studio perfectionist, it took Johnson another eight years or so to issue Bloom (2005) and another five for Up Close (2010). The music is always worth the wait.

Johnson’s latest release, Live In Europe, is a live compilation featuring highlights from a run of shows overseas last year. The album boasts two new tracks in “Intro” and “Evinrude Fever” but is otherwise a “greatest hits in concert” project showcasing Johnson’s command of the guitar onstage rather than in studio, where technology affords the safety net of multi-tracking, do-overs and punch-ins. Live In Europe is a testament to Johnson’s prowess as a performer (despite his meticulousness in-studio), and searing selections like “Zenland,” “Song for Life,” and “Last House on The Block” benefit from the now-or-never risk inherent to live gigs.

Eric tore it up at Kent Stage, too. But he started this particular bonfire with a little acoustic kindling. By the time all was said and done, the audience was treated to several smoldering Johnson originals—along with a batch of covers of such diverse artists as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, And Jimi Hendrix.

Johnson nonchalantly strode onstage in jeans and a blue dress shirt, cursorily greeting the crowd before opening with a sparkly “Kathy’s Song” (Paul Simon) on acoustic guitar. Work-in-progress “Better Man” likewise focused on Johnson’s finger-style skills and gentle vocals.

Johnson welcomed his band mates to the stage while swapping out his Maton for a sunburst Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. Once they got going (“Trail of Tears”), they never quite let up. The semiautobiographical “Austin” brought Johnson back to his Lone Star roots, while the sultry “Manhattan” celebrated night life in the Big Apple. “We Can Work It Out” found the trio turning the 1965 Fab Four single upside-down (and emptying its pockets) for a few new ideas, while retaining the original verse and ¾ time bridge.

Johnson’s an undeniable “guitar god,” but he eschewed the usual six-string stunts and clichés in deference to touch and timbre (his major-league debut wasn’t called Tones for nothing). His left hand traversed the neck on “Trademark,” his fingers often a blur as they bent and pulled the strings. Sometimes he’d pinch ghost notes and harmonics above the frets, or coax extraterrestrial sounds from the Strat by smacking his palm over its pickups. He appeared to pick every note—and there were lots of them—without the gimmicky two-handed tapping employed by every other “shredder.”

No dramatic wincing or whammy bar dive-bombs here. Johnson made good use of the effects pedals at his feet, triggering fresh “voices” for his fret board meanderings with every other excursion. When not singing, the guitarist tended toward stage left (facing Maresh), where he’d hunch slightly and soar, fingers splayed. And just when you thought one passage was ending, Johnson would depress a pedal or change pickups again, dialing up new tones for another excursion down yet another musical avenue.

It was a how-to lesson in guitar acrobatics, yet never once did it feel clinical or self-indulgent.

Johnson couldn’t have wanted for a more dynamic rhythm section. Fellow Texans Wayne Salzmann II (drums) and Chris Maresh (bass) kept the grooves coming throughout the set, laying sturdy foundations for the guitarist’s complex designs without ever losing synch with one another—even on trickier time signatures. The bespectacled Salzmann often counted in the tunes, clicking his sticks from behind a dw kit that was far less elaborate than the meters he pummeled from it. Maresh loitered at stage right, thumping a white blonde Fender American Deluxe Jazz bass in front of the towering 810 Neo cabinet pumping his rumbling lines into the theatre.

Both men had opportunities to shine, particularly late in the set, when the trio barreled through a couple jazz / fusion numbers that included “East Wes” (dedicated to Wes Montgomery) and “On Dolphin Street” (the standard immortalized by Miles Davis).

Johnson reached back to his overlooked debut Seven Worlds for the scorching “Zap” (the song reappeared on the Tones album), then stretched out on a rearrangement of the atmospheric Venus Isle cut “When The Sun Meets the Sky.” The workout dovetailed neatly with the obligatory (but note-perfect) “Cliffs of Dover,” whereon Johnson plucked the song’s familiar licks and leitmotifs with a surgeon’s precision—but a sculptor’s passion.

Watch Eric Johnson play “Cliffs of Dover” (an unaccompanied lesson) here:

A standing ovation brought Johnson back for a funky cover of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ 1967 hit “Tears of a Clown.” Eric sang the verses but again favored extrapolating upon musical themes with his guitar, distilling the original tune’s quirky, carnival-like notes into sizzling chords before tossing in a few measures of Stevie Wonder’s 1966 dance hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).”

Johnson encored with a final cover / tribute: His rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” was proof positive that yes, he and his rhythm section are experienced—and can really cook in concert.

The only drawbacks were the lighting and vocals. The soft-spoken Eric has a pleasant voice, but it was mildly muffled last night. He often began verses before he was positioned closely enough for the mic to pick them up, usually because he was rounding off some breakneck lick. The guitarist effused modesty where his singing was concerned. When one fan yelled for them to turn the vocals up, Johnson was cheerful but effusive:

“You’d only ask them to turn it back down!” he laughed, prepping for the next guitar onslaught.

There were only a couple spotlights trained on Johnson at the microphone, and these were stationary; the guitarist wandered deeper into the shadows with every step he took away from the mic stand. The mix (notwithstanding the vocals) was great.

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