Eric Johnson could not be farther away from the stereotypical image of the guitar god. There’s no bombastic, larger-than-life, whirlwind-type of personality in him. And truth is that he doesn’t need any of those additaments. Back in 1986, when he released his album Tones, he established his own, unique voice. His fluidness, his fingering, and his shimmering crystalline tone have remained untouched, spotlighting the sonic and lyrical splendor of his guitar by navigating through its myriad melodic vibrancy. No one sounded like him 32 years ago, and still, no one does.
Johnson has been touring the US for the last two months, presenting a spectacle in which he plays his pivotal 1990’s album Ah Via Musicom in its entirety, along with his former band-mates from The Electromagnets, Kyle Brock (bass) and Tommy Taylor (drums). His incendiary and fan-favorite song “Cliffs of Dover” has been published in guitar magazines for as long as I can remember, and every aspiring guitarist has either learned it or attempted to learn it. Against all possible odds and at a time when instrumental rock hits seemed all but extinct, Ah Via Musicom sold more than half a million copies and netted a Grammy nomination in spite of the fact that it largely consisted of instrumentals, immediately elevating Johnson to rock star status.
The opening act for this tour is Johnson’s protege, a New Jersey native, young guitar-slinger named Arielle. She played a set by herself, using her proficiency on the acoustic and electric guitar, as well as piano, to highlight the presence of her pure voice, sporting a four-octave range. Raised in California and Hawaii, she has already made the cover of Guitar Player magazine and released the single “California,” which reached No. 3 on CMT Pure. She has also opened for Gregg Allman, Heart, Joan Jett, Graham Nash, and others. The audience was clearly impressed with the honesty of her performance as well as her technical dexterity.
With almost no delay after Arielle abandoned the stage, Eric Johnson and his partners came out of the gate with “Stratagem”, a foot-stomping rock tune that set the night in motion. Balancing guitar virtuosity, psychedelic blues and straight-up rock and roll, including originals and creative covers of famous tunes, the trio waded through an initial set which felt extremely short in time. Witnessing Johnson’s playing carries some similitude with an ethereal experience. Contrasting other band-fronting virtuoso attempting to wow the audiences through hollow rock-god gestures and gimmicky technical flash, Johnson is a deeply soulful player, a diverse, versatile and fully realized musical creator: think of the tone of David Gilmour and the chops of John McLaughlin.
After a short intermission, the trio returned to offer what everyone in attendance was waiting for. Ah Via Musicom kicked off with a spacey self-titled intro, to segue into “Cliffs of Dover”, followed by a true avalanche of applauds. Watching Johnson interacting with his guitar became a somewhat hypnotic trance: He seemed to pull the notes out of the instrument as if the guitar was an extension of his hands. His relationship with his instrument is such that his solo lines seem to have been waiting within the guitar for him to come along and play them, and all this outstanding execution is done within a context of a sophisticated and stripped of any studio polishing rock music, channeling the 80’s fusion albums by the maestro Allan Holdsworth. As someone once said: “Few rock guitarists can take an audience on an unforgettable journey like Eric Johnson can”. The entire theater was thriving, the blissful sounds of Johnson’s guitar piercing the collective heart of the presents to its core. By the time they closed with “Western Flyer” we were all on our feet.
An extraordinary guitar player accessible to ordinary music fans Eric Johnson has absolutely nothing to prove, yet he continues touring and playing for the sake of his fans’ amusement – “I don’t think I’m a rock god. I just keep playing. It’s fun, and I’m glad people enjoy it.” Either paying homage to his heroes, collaborating and playing with many of his finest contemporary talents, or simply revisiting the stunning melodies and the explosively charged fretboard fireworks he created three decades ago, the “Tone Poet” can truly astound your senses: simply put he’s one of the greatest guitarists alive. And you can quote me on that.
ERIC JOHNSON Set-list
Set A: Intro / Stratagem / S.R.V. / The Night Before (The Beatles cover) / Trail of Tears / Underground / Black Mountain Side (Led Zeppelin cover) / Wanderlust (Arielle cover) C.W. / Rock Me Baby (B.B. King cover) / Manhattan / Pipeline
Set B: Ah Via Musicom / Cliffs of Dover / Desert Rose / High Landrons / Steve’s Boogie / Trademark / Nothing Can Keep Me From You / Song for George / Righteous /Forty Mile Town / East Wes / Western Flyer