Eric Johnson: Now and then

Austin guitar legend Eric Johnson on balancing expectations

Photograph of Eric Johnson at Max Crace Studio in Austin, TX August 2017
Max Crace

Depending on who you ask and what day you ask it, having that One Monster Hit is either a blessing or a boat anchor for the working musician. For his part, Eric Johnson’s has always been, and probably will always be, the galloping instrumental “Cliffs of Dover,” the premiere cut from his second album, Ah Via Musicom, released in 1990. Johnson’s repute as an Austin fret burner of uncommon combustion had already been solidified among guitarist fans with his previous (and first major label) release, Tones, but Ah Via Musicom blew the doors off Johnson’s career, and “Cliffs of Dover” earned him a 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

So understandably, the single became a staple, and eventually the set-closer, of pretty much all of Johnson’s live gigs. It also appears on nearly all the live material Johnson has released since, only marginally re-worked from its original arrangement. Testament to the piece’s buoyant melody and healthy space for Johnson’s blinding soloing, it is still fresh, and, along with one or two others from that LP (“Trademark” and “Forty Mile Town”), it keeps that piece of the guitarist’s now-receding past close at hand. For his fans, and for himself, balancing what’s now and what was then is always a challenge. For this tour, Johnson revisits the entire Ah Via Musicom album, start to finish.  

“Yeah,” he reflects recently. “It’s cool, it’s fine. Y’know, I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but no, it’s fine.

“Fortunately, even with the Musicom stuff, I mean there’s a lot of room for improvisation, so it’s not like a note-for-note thing. There’s a little room in there, which makes it a little bit more liquid.

“I think sometimes, if you set the bar on whatever it is you’re doing and people enjoy it, it really kind of comes back to the artist himself. He’s got to come up with something that captures people’s interest. The audience might be a little biased in that way, in that it might be a little extra hard to turn the heads, but it’s up to the artist to come up with something that would interest them as much as what the bar got set on originally.”

Johnson finds balancing his temporal inspiration and his fans’ expectation symmetrical with the balancing act artists in other fields must perform.

“You have typecast actors that will somehow get out of that mold, because they’re dynamic enough and inventive enough to show their liquidity… but even if they do, and they get accepted that way, and they’re supported in that way, there’ll still be people who’ll say, ‘Well, I remember when they did this or that, and that was the best.’ It probably still won’t ever leave them, but it can be limited or depleted over time.”

Johnson reunites with his old touring band — Kyle Brock and Tommy Taylor — for the Musicom material, but the show will also feature newer material, likely including some from his latest studio album, Collage, released just last year. In some sense, the new album has plenty of references to Johnson’s past, although more as bookmarks to his own musical inspirations: a sprightly, bounding cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” a nod to early Motown with Stevie Wonder’s “Up Tight (Everything’s Alright),” a solo acoustic read of Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish” and a joyously bonkers cover of “Pipeline,” the landmark 1962 surf single by The Chantays.

“That was the first thing that got me into guitar when I was really young — the Ventures, Nokie Edwards and all that stuff,” he says.

The album itself is a breezy, relatively low-impact affair — even the wide-open instrumental ballad closer “To Whom It May Concern” finds Johnson resisting the opportunity for pyrotechnics, opting instead for graceful and tender improv lines, sensitive to the tune’s melancholy. One gets the sense that Johnson, continually battling his own now-legendary perfectionism, is succeeding at being himself without getting too wrapped around the axle. There’s a great quote in Johnson’s liner notes to Collage: “I must unlearn and let go.”

Johnson laughs a little at that quote, in juxtaposition to Ah Via Musicom.

“Well that was probably the last thing on my mind when I made Ah Via Musicom. Kyle and Tommy played so great on that record, they kind of cut a lot of their stuff live. And there’s a good chunk of that I cut live too, but I kinda went back and manipulated it… manipulated it to the end of the earth. Just everything, trying to get it right. Somehow or another, it doesn’t sound that way, but typically when you do that, it feels that way.”

Maybe the way out of the mind trap is the blues album; Johnson, when inspired to do so, is a deft and uniquely gifted blues player, a well of expression he dips into relatively infrequently. The fans had been calling for an Ah Via Musicom start-to-finish… but plenty have been asking for a blues album as well. Any chance we’ll see that?

“It’s funny you mention that,” he says. “There was a friend of the family that passed away two years ago, and he made me promise that I’d do more of that someday. And I do… I mean, I must have at least six pieces. I wanna do a blues record. And I’m just trying to figure out how to do it. I don’t want to do another strat-Texas rock record, I mean, who needs that? Stevie Ray was the greatest at that.

“I grew up on that stuff. Albert and B.B. and Freddie, that’s totally in my blood, although most people may not realize it. So I think if I did this record, I would want it to be contributive — not flashy or ego-y, but something that contributes to the blues idiom, which is such a beautiful idiom.

“Just interesting you’d ask about this, because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I just need to figure out … how to do it.”   

The guitar is an elusive mistress, a tease and a siren, generous in her promise of endless opportunity, pitiless in her demand for dedication. And yet it’s seductive enough to keep the pilgrim chasing that sound. As a soiled and often overwhelmed petitioner ourselves at that altar, we couldn’t help asking Johnson whether there were still times when the sound rang clear but the fingers, the navigation on the fretboard, just wouldn’t cooperate. A chord, a scale, a passing harmonic, the perfectly placed arpeggio… it resonates in the spirit, but the mechanics just will not align to that sound.

“Oh yeah, man,” he laughs, “all the time. Way too much.   

“I grew up playing classical piano and never really pursued enough to get that astute at it. I just got ingrained in me this kind of sound that was so elegant. When I decided I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll, I wanted that elegance.

“So yeah, it’s every day, all the time, trying to find that elegance.”

On the Bill: Eric Johnson — with Arielle. 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver.  Reserved tickets are $37.50 plus applicable service charges.