Eric Johnson takes on Taft Theatre
By Brandon Semler
Photo: Eric Johnson will perform on Aug. 5 at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati
World-renowned guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson will hit the road on a U.S. tour in support of his most recent live album Europe Live, stopping by Cincinnati’s Taft Theater on Tuesday, Aug. 5.
The tour will begin July 30 in Des Moines, Iowa and wrap up Nov. 19 in Annapolis Md., with a few breaks in between for different projects.
Europe Live, released June 23, is currently No. 1 on the Billboard Blues charts. The album features a variety of work spanning Johnson’s entire career, from 1986’s Tones to 2010’s Up Close. The majority of the work is taken from his performance at Amsterdam’s Melkweg, along with selections from two dates at Die Kantine in Köln, Germany and Bochum Zeche and the Paris show at New Morning.
Johnson said he always tries to pick a good variety for his live performances, and the Europe Live album started as an afterthought after recording several shows on the continent. He said the recordings were dynamic, and worthy of being presented as a whole.
“It’s a good cross-section of different songs and styles,” Johnson said. “It’s a little more spontaneous and more performance-oriented.”
The 14-track collection opens with a drum-fueled jam before slipping into the riff-centered “Zenland,” which was originally recorded by his side project, Alien Love Child. His Grammy-winning instrumental “Cliffs of Dover” and Grammy-nominated “Zap” are here, as well as the bluesy “Austin.”
Johnson also manages to swing a bit, presenting a rendition of John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” on which bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann groove like a jazz rhythm section. Some of Johnson’s more recent work also makes an appearance, including the funky “Fatdaddy” from Up Close. The live favorite “Manhattan” is also included.
Johnson said songs like “Cliffs of Dover” and “Zap” can sometimes get tiresome after so many years of playing them, but his frequent improvising helps to keep them fresh.
“You can run the risk of them getting kind of old, but if it’s something people want to hear, I’m glad to play it,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of room for improvisation.”
The crystal clear, almost orchestral tone Johnson is famous for is ever-present on Europe Live, as well as all of his other live recordings. Johnson said the process of finding the right sound takes a lot of time and patience.
“You just keep working it out until you get it,” Johnson said. “It’s a process of trial and error.”
Though Johnson started playing classical piano in his youth, he switched to the guitar after seeing and hearing The Beatles and the British Invasion. Johnson began playing Austin-area nightclubs at 13, joining the psychedelic rock band Mariani. He later joined the jazz-rock fusion group The Electomagnets. Johnson also worked as a session artist in the years leading up to his solo debut Tones in 1986. Though he has always been praised for his guitar work, Johnson said being around songsmiths such as Cat Stevens and Carol King in the studio helped him to become a better songwriter.
“They’re really great songwriters,” Johnson said. “It made me take note. You have to have a song that’s worth listening to.”
Johnson will take a break in the tour in mid-August to head on the road with the Experience Hendrix tour, which he has been a part of for several consecutive years. The tour will also feature Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Billy Cox, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang.
He also just finished an album with frequent collaborator, friend and fellow guitarist Mike Stern.
As if that weren’t enough, Johnson has also released several tracks exclusively online. Currently, songs that include “To Whom It May Concern,” “Imagination Of You – A Tribute To George Harrison” (featuring Christopher Cross) and his rendition of “The Wind Cries Mary” are available.
Some time in the near future, Johnson said he hopes to release an all-acoustic album with new original material, which would center around individual performances.
“It would be more conducive to solo guitar,” Johnson said.
Eric Johnson will perform on Tuesday, Aug. 5 at the Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St. in Cincinnati. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., the show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 D.O.S. For more information, please visit ericjohnson.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Brandon Semler at BrandonSemler@DaytonCityPaper.com.