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Wednesday, 30 August 2006 00:00

Eric Johnson: Live at the Orange Peel 8/30/06

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By Chris Cooper

OK, the title of this one is a bit misleading, seeing as how Eric Johnson’s appearance at Asheville’s Orange Peel technically hasn’t happened yet.

And since I was never able to get my hands on one of those time-traveling silver DeLoreans from the Michael J. Fox movies, I can’t say that I’ve already seen what I’m sure will be a tremendous and inspiring show ... but it sure would be cool if I could.

Jeez, and I could go back and fix a few of those questionable life-changing decisions while I was at it. Oh well.

Johnson, arguably, is one of the finest electric guitarists on the planet right now. He’s as well one of the few lucky and skillful enough to have carved out a singular melodic voice on the instrument, a tone that you recognize instantly every time you hear it.

Coaxing fragile, Japanese koto-like textures one minute, blazing like a Stradivarius through a monolithic Marshall stack the next, Johnson’s playing has transcended what most guitarists would recognize as “the boundaries of technique.” Simply put, the guy can play anything.

Though Johnson has put out quite a few records over the years (albeit with 4 to 6 year breaks between) most fans would point to his first two albums, 1986’s Tones and 1990’s platinum selling Ah Via Musicom as the most defining statements of his career.

True guitar nerds, or “aficionados” (like me), can remember where they were when they first heard his groundbreaking single “Cliffs of Dover.” In my case it was sitting on the porch of someone’s house at a random high-school party, staring in disbelief at the stunning sounds emanating from the little jam box at my feet.

Tones was a crafty combination of pop savvy, a little jazz and a healthy dollop of inspired electric guitar virtuosity. Johnson’s wispy vocals might not fit into every context so well (a gritty blues belter he’s not) but here they serve the songs perfectly, as evidenced on the tunes “Emerald Eyes” and “Bristol Shore.”

But it’s the instrumental gems like “Soulful Terrain,” the blazing Texas shuffle of “Zap” and the majestic closer “Victory” that made it abundantly clear that we weren’t dealing with a normal “rock” guitarist here. He might not even be human. Drawing from a background referencing Clapton’s early Bluesbreakers work, Hendrix’s feedback laden psychedelic excursions and the greats from his home state of Texas, Tones was a dazzling introduction to a fearless young guitarist.

With 1990’s Ah Via Musicom, Johnson evolved the voice and style found on Tones, and managed a nearly impossible feat: getting instrumental guitar music on mainstream radio. And not just “Cliffs of Dover” either: “Trademark” and “Righteous” gained repeated airplay as well. The popularity of these tunes earned him Grammy nominations and a spot on the Blues Fest tour alongside Buddy Guy and BB King, replacing fellow Texas wunderkind Stevie Ray Vaughn after his tragic death.

Johnson also racked up numerous appearances in guitar magazines and TV, a slew of reader’s choice awards, and probably helped (unintentionally) to spike the sales and prices of vintage sunburst Fender Stratocasters. It was also his notorious ear for tone and attention to every nuance and aspect of his signal path (he can reportedly hear the difference in the brand of batteries in his effects pedals) that made many guitarists rethink their personal approach to developing a “sound.”

Since the release of Ah Via Musicom, Johnson has toured on his own, with the power trio Alien Love Child and as part of the initial G3 lineup, with founder Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. He has also embarked on a few acoustic guitar and piano oriented “mini tours,” and put out some fine instructional videos and books.

His latest album, last year’s Bloom, pulled together the feel of his earlier catalog with his more recent acoustic leanings, and perhaps most exciting was the release (on DVD) of his jaw-dropping performance on a 1988 episode of Austin City Limits. He also released an unusually loose (in the best way) live record with Alien Love Child, and earned the honor of a signature model Fender Stratocaster, made to his exact specifications.

The opportunity to catch one of the real masters of the guitar live and up close is just something way too exciting and rare to pass up. Fans of his music (yes, mostly guitar players) will most certainly make up the majority of the audience, but I would encourage anybody even remotely interested to check this show out.

Turning the radio on nowadays can give you a pretty dim view of the state of the guitar’s role in American music lately, so consider this concert a sort of invitation to be reminded of the true and glorious potential of the electric guitar in the hands of someone that has dedicated their life to making it sing.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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