Music Review

Eric Johnson
by Tom Fitt
Published January 15, 2009

In Austin, Texas, if you need a guitar player for your band, or a six-stringed accompanist for a vocal gig, or a songwriter for an upcoming session, one need only open the front door and shout “guitar player.” There are that many qualified players in this small Texas town that has long been acknowledged as the South’s music hotbed. That’s where Eric Johnson, called “an extraordinary guitar player accessible to ordinary music fans” by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, grew up and began his career.
Tonight at 7 p.m., this Grammy winner brings his exquisitely melodic guitar playing to Brixton on the Redondo Beach pier. His concert will consist of original tunes written primarily over the past three decades which feature Johnson’s singing as well as his facility on the instrument. “White Cliffs of Dover,” the 1991 Grammy Award winner for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, will be in the line-up. It’s a song that shuffles along in what to this day remains a sound identified with Austin and the likes of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who grew up musically alongside Johnson in this Texas town. “Dover” tells a story without using words.
As a kid, Johnson started in music as a piano student. When he reached puberty, the Beatles emerged on the scene and the allure of the electric guitar captivated the young musician. He still plays the keyboard in live performance – witness his piano rendition of Hendrix’s “Wind Calls Mary” recorded live at The Grove in Anaheim in 2006 and released last year on his album and DVD “Anaheim.” “The song just lends itself to different interpretations,” said Johnson. But his work on the Fender Strat has gained Johnson the most recognition among peers and music critics alike. Musician Magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century.”
Johnson still lives and records in Austin. Many of the sidemen he uses on his recordings and live shows are Austin natives. How has the scene changed in this music-crazed city over the years?
“It’s still an eclectic music town with a lot going on,” said Johnson in a phone interview. “The musicians are different – they’ve changed over the years – but it’s a melting pot of talent.”
If one listens to any Eric Johnson recording for more than a minute, the country and jazz influences become pronounced.
“I suppose the country comes from where I grew up,” said Johnson. “I was surrounded by it. I still love to listen to pedal steel, my favorite instrument. I can’t play it, but I love to listen.
“As for the jazz, I just listen to everything – Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, George Benson, Thumbs Carlisle, Django Reinhardt. There’s so much more I need to learn from these guys.”
Learn? Listen to Johnson’s take of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” on the “Anaheim” album. What more to learn? In his varied career, Johnson has also been featured on recordings by Cat Stevens, Christopher Cross, Carole King and more. Early on, Johnson’s ensemble opened for ZZ Top, Bloodrock and others.
Not living in the past, Johnson is working on a new CD he hopes to release this summer. “It’s basically a continuation of my last recordings,” he said modestly.
Johnson is spending a week in the LA area – “It’s been about a year since we’ve played here” – and then will return to Texas for a few one-nighters starting in El Paso. Then, it’s back to the studio to finish his current project. For tonight’s performance at Brixton, he plans no acoustic offerings, no piano, just thriving rock and roll guitar. Enjoy a performer of whom guitarist Steve Val said: “Eric has more colorful tone in his fingers than Van Gogh had on his palette.”
To sample Johnson’s work and purchase online, visit ericjohnson.com.
Eric Johnson, Brixton at the Redondo Beach pier, tonight at 7 p.m. Tickets $25. Call (310) 406-1931. ER