OnEric Johnson’s forthcoming fourth headlining appearance on PBS’ “Austin City Limits” (taped in late 2000) the Texas tonemaster breaks out an original and innovative set. Show-cased are five of Johnson’s more eclectic songs, each a gem from his catalog that proves his skills as a composer, vocalist, and guitarist.
While the guitar is what has brought Johnson acclaim, his broader musical gifts have been overshadowed by it. This performance should silence naysayers.
Opening with the instrumental “Zenland,” the first cut off Live And Beyond and backed by his band, Alien Love Child, its signature chord voicings and the tones that emanate from his Strat are obvious EJ. A fluid, straight-ahead rocker, Johnson’s application of seamless and fiery with dynamic finesse.
“Friends,” from 1986’s Tones, is rarely performed but grasps the intensity of Johnson’s emotional depth as a singer/songwriter, designing melodies and contemplative lyrics. Harmonics lead into and out of the song, as the song climaxes with searing riffs supporting his expressive vocals.
The phrasing and interpretation is equaled as he segues into “Nothing Can Keep Me From You,” a gorgeous quasi rock/pop piece from Ah Via Musicom. With lionesque guitar voicings, again Johnson treats the audience to his blend of vocals entwined with a rock guitar chorus that repeats in a round, lyrical calliope. Here, his playing actually takes on greater precision and spirit when singing.
Johnson then straps on his Gibson SG to perform the subdued jazz instrumental, “Rain” off Live And Beyond. Pay attention to his intricate thumb and picking techniques, evoking Johnson’s inspired studies of Wes Montgomery, while staying true to his own sound.
Last is a show-stopping cover of Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” with Johnson back on Strat, and a stage-stealing Malford Milligan guesting on vocals. Johnson and Milligan spar off of in an incendiary firestorm that is as exhilarating to watch as it is to hear, each admiring and pushing the other to great heights in a crescendo of virtuosity. Once more, Johnson pays homage to one an inspirations, but his tones and riffs are trademark.
Watching Johnson perform live is a real treat, and to the credit of “Austin City Limits” directors, producers, and crew, this is a fascinating chance to observe his technique, range, and above all, talent – in full closeup. His fingerings, picking, speed, control, and mastery of the instrument is captured in detail.
But that’s not all, as “Austin City Limits” adds a very special treat for its viewers: after Johnson ends the performance and the credits begin to roll, a joyful Johnson sits relaxed among his guitars with an obvious look of childlike wonder, talks about his artistic challenges, thoughts, and the satisfaction he derives when at one with his guitar.
Check with local PBS stations for air and repeat broadcast dates.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.