Eric Johnson strives for pure tone, not Fats Waller perfection

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 25, 2001

By Steve Newton

Out of the many rock and blues guitarists that I’ve chatted with over the years, the most revered ones have invariably turned out to be the most self-effacing and down-to-earth. Whether it be Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Danny Gatton, or Roy Buchanan, they’ve all come across as unassuming folk with little going on in the ego department. And now I can add Texas guitarist Eric Johnson to that list. When he dials in for an interview from his home in Austin, Johnson sounds surprised to hear that I think his new album, Live and Beyond, is a killer.

“Really? Well, thanks! It’s kinda quirky in that, you know, it was live, and we just let it be what it is—which was contrary to what I used to do. There’s some stuff on there that kinda bugs me, but that’s gonna happen live, you know. It’s not gonna be perfect—unless you’re Fats Waller or somethin’. But anything short of that is like, ‘Well, here’s reality.’ ”

With the exception of one studio track, Live and Beyond was recorded at the famed Austin nightclub Antone’s with Johnson’s trio Alien Love Child, which includes bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Bill Maddox. It consists of all-new material, some of which will be heard when ALC plays a double bill with the formidable Derek Trucks Band at the Commodore on Wednesday (January 31). Live and Beyond is Johnson’s first release since 1996’s Venus Isle, which he points out was a very time-consuming, frustrating, and difficult album to make.

“It’s just that I got so studio-esque,” he relates, adding that the Antone’s session with Alien Love Child was a completely organic, relaxed experience. “I hadn’t been playin’ live for so long, and finally just went, ‘Aw, let’s get out and play some shows.’ So we just came up with a silly name for the band—it was a side project, didn’t have my name involved, didn’t even advertise—and we’d just go out and play. And I think it started clicking with me, you know, reminding me of the reasons you make music.”

Johnson’s new disc includes a bluesy, Cream-like excursion (“Last House on the Block”), a tribute to John Lee Hooker (“The Boogie King”), and the soaring instrumental “Zenland”, which sports the same exhilarating vibe as his wordless, Grammy Award–winning single, “Cliffs of Dover”. Former Storyville vocalist Malford Milligan also sits in on two tunes, the reflective Johnson-penned ballad “Once a Part of Me” and “Don’t Cha’ Know”, a song Jimmie Vaughan wrote and performed on his ’94 album, Strange Pleasure.

“That was kind of a fluke,” says Johnson of the inclusion of the Vaughan cover. “We had finished our set, and the audience wanted an encore, but we were literally just out of tunes. We could have gone on and done somethin’ without Malford, but he was there and we thought, ‘Well, let’s do something with Malford. Let’s just do a Jimmie Vaughan shuffle in B-flat.’ It was just one take, and it worked out kinda interesting, so we put it on the record.”

While Johnson has been winning over guitar fans ever since his 1986 debut, Tones, his profile was given a significant boost when he joined Joe Satriani and Steve Vai on the celebrated G3 Tour, which saw each player perform his own set before they came together for a riff-riddled jam at the end of each gig. On the subsequent album, G3—Live in Concert, Johnson performed three tracks before trading licks with Satriani and Vai on tunes by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Don Nix. But Johnson eventually left the tour—before it made its way to Vancouver in September of ’97, unfortunately—to be replaced by the better-known but more imitative Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

“We did a long tour,” explains Johnson, “and we made a video and did a record, and I just decided I was gonna go do some other stuff at some juncture, you know, just kinda pursuin’ other musical things.”

Johnson may not be as flashy a player as his former G3 tourmates, but the supernatural Vai—who is cofounder of Johnson’s new label, Favoured Nations—declares that “Eric has more colourful tone in his fingers than Van Gogh had on his palette.” Readers of the prestigious Guitar Player magazine seem to agree, having voted Johnson best overall guitarist for five years running. So what does he figure makes the world’s rock-guitar freaks so crazy about his music?

“Maybe people resonate to certain projects you do that really excite ’em or something,” Johnson ponders. “There was a particular record I did called Ah Via Musicom which a lot of guitar players really enjoyed. It was just at the right place at the right time, I guess.”

Eric Johnson sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On recording his new CD at the legendary Antone’s in Austin: “It’s not a particularly big club—it’s a blues club, actually—and we just thought it would be a nice vibe for doin’ a blues-rock record. We played three nights there and taped all the nights and then chose which takes we liked.”

On which guitarists have been turning his crank lately: “I really love Michael Stern and Pat Metheny; those two guys are probably my favourite contemporary players. And I think the guy in Stone Temple Pilots is a good player. I like him for that kinda real power thing.”

On how he gets his fabled guitar tone: “A lot of it just comes from your fingers; you have to learn to pick the string and fret it appropriately, and do the muting. And then I try to find the kind of equipment that’ll make a nice marriage when it’s all put together, and give as pure a tone as possible, you know.”

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