Is Eric Johnson learning to relax?

The storied guitar virtuoso talks about living in the moment and blowing out a few candles

Max Crace

Anyone following the career of Austinbased guitarist Eric Johnson has learned to reconcile the guitarist’s singular fretboard mastery with his sluggish pace of releasing recordings. Johnson endured years of interview questions about his notorious perfectionism (occasionally even from this reporter) and was typically gracious enough to concede that breaking the habit of sweating the minutiae would enhance his productivity.

Typically, though, Johnson, who is doing a run of shows in Colorado this week, is usually too modest to point out the obvious: It’s easy for columnists to recommend that an artist reboot his work ethic, it’s a lot harder for the protagonist himself. 

So it is a pleasant surprise that his latest release — a series of live recordings taped in Europe last year — is an uncharacteristically spontaneous affair. 

“Yeah,” he says, “we never really planned a record, they just decided to record a few shows and I was like, ‘sure, whatever.’ I didn’t think that much about it when I was onstage. … I knew they were recording in the back of the venue, but, y’know, we were just touring. And I got home and said, ‘Ah, there’s a few things that sound pretty good.’” 

The 14-cut offering, Europe Live, provides a welcome contrast to the guitarist’s veneered studio outings. Instrumental burners like the jammy “Evinrude Fever” and the stomping, Beck-ish “Zap,” the latter from Johnson’s first solo album Tones, frame quieter numbers like a slightly re-arranged “Forty Mile Town” and a lithe piece called “Song For Life.” Johnson’s trademark “Cliffs of Dover” is included as well, still fresh and engaging.

But the album’s two centerpieces are the longest cuts. “Last House on the Block,” a vocal tune about substance abuse, is shamelessly laced with Wheels of Fire reverie, its molten pentatonic soloing carrying the tune’s middle six cover “Mr. P.C.” the trio shines equally, minutes. And on a furious Coltrane as bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann take long solos.

There are a couple of fleeting spots during his solo on “Mr. P.C.” where you can hear Johnson’s head momentarily get out in front of his fingers. “Mistakes” may be too clumsy a term, but one can’t escape the feeling that the Eric Johnson of 20 years ago would have punched them out in the edit.

“Well,” he reflected, “you know me. I think on my studio records, it kind of comes across a little bit like playing it safe. I’ll just play it over and over and over, until I get every ‘t’ crossed. And I think I’ve finally realized something I probably should have realized years ago, that when you do that, there’s something that you lose.”

It’s living in the moment. 

“Yeah, absolutely. There’s a certain spirit that happens. And I finally get it. It was tough for me to come to that realization. It started happening on my last studio record; I started thinking, ‘I wonder if I’m going about this the best way I could.’

“And so we did this jam piece, we literally just improvised start-to-end, and a couple of friends come in afterward and they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, I like that better than your studio songs.’ Here I am spending weeks on each song, doing it over and over, and everything’s just right…and then I do this thing in two minutes, and people say ‘Oh we like that much better.’ I’m like, ‘Gee, I gotta rethink this whole deal.”

Johnson may be breaking his lengthy spell between releases as well. Later in the year, we should see a collaborative record with New York-based jazz and fusion guitarist Mike Stern.

“Yeah, it’s finished,” Johnson says of the record. “It should come out in November.”

We noted, carefully, that Johnson wraps up his three-gig Colorado swing in Denver the night before a birthday.

“When I turned 30 it kind of bummed me out, when I turned 40 I didn’t care, 50 I didn’t care. But 60? I mean, that’s it, you’re a geezer. It’s over. I might as well put a bell around my neck and go and lay out under an oak tree.”

Two words. Keith Richards. 

“Yeah, exactly,” he laughs, “thank God for Keith Richards. I’m at the age now when I say, ‘Go Keith, go. Show us how it’s done.’”