Posted July, 2014
Eric Johnson. Serious music buffs and guitar aficionados are well aware of this guitar legend. For those of you who haven’theard of him, I’ll give you the “Reader’s Digest” version of his story:
Raised in a musical family, Eric began picking up the guitar at the tender age of eleven. By the time he turned fifteen, he was playing professionally in a psychedelic rock band called “Mariani”. In the following years, Johnson made a name for himself as a solo artist as well as an in-demand session guitarist for such huge names as Carole King, Cat Stevens and Christopher Cross. Aspiring guitarists would kill to just be able to play his mistakes. Others will wind up selling their gear and buy his records.
The Texas and current Austin-area native and current resident is probably best known for his songs “Cliffs of Dover,” “Manhattan,” and “Trademark”. A musician’s musician, Eric has commanded the respect of fellow guitar masters from Johnny Winter to Steve Vai. He has just released his eleventh solo album – a live disc (his third) entitled, “Europe Live” – arguably his best yet.
I was recently given the golden opportunity to chat with Eric. When the guitar phenom called me, he was in the middle of ordering a drink from a local smoothie joint near his home. Warm, friendly, and engaging, I knew that I was in for a great chat with this guitar great.
I started off with small talk, mentioning that I saw him at the Dallas International Guitar Festival in 2011 or 2012 where he treated an enthusiastic crowd to a show full of Hendrix covers performed to perfection. I then mentioned a mutual friend of ours,Andy Timmons, to which Johnson exclaimed, “Sure! Mike Stern and I are doing a record together and just finished the record. We’re mixing it right now but we played a show in Dallas about three weeks ago and Andy came out and sat in with us.”
I focused my first questions to Eric around, “Europe Live,” asking him why he chose Europe to record live this time.
“When we did that tour out there, it was kind of an afterthought to record it. We were already in Europe working with Mascot Records and they said, ‘Hey, do you want to record some of these shows?’ And we thought, ‘Sure! Why not?’ So we just recorded them on the cuff – didn’t really know what we were going to do with tapes. On the live record, I don’t really talk that much. I just kinda go, ‘Thank you! Here’s our next song we’re gonna do . . . ‘ I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Oh! I’m doing a live record!’ That wasn’t even the plan. When I got home and listened to the tapes, I go, ‘You know? We oughta make something of this.’”
When I asked Johnson how the European crowds compare to fans in other parts of the world, his answer was enthusiastic.
“I think they’re wonderful! I think they’re very attentive. They might be a little quieter but they’re definitely appreciative! I think, maybe, the German crowds are a little bit more subdued sometimes but, at the end of the night when you finish the set, if you do a decent job, they seem to like it. I think the French people are a little more courteous, I guess. You don’t get a lot of riff raff or as much craziness. They’re a little bit more considerate.”
“Europe Live” spans Eric Johnson’s entire career as an artist. Of the fourteen songs on this album, only four have been on the other two live albums. I asked him what drove the set list and what does he hope fans will derive from this album as compared to the other two live albums.
“When I did the ‘Alien Love Child’ record, it was all music written for that record live so it was kinda proprietary music for that. This was, essentially, an afterthought. We were just doing a collage of music from over the years. We just picked most of the stuff out of the set. There was a couple of songs that I didn’t play well or there was something wrong with the microphones or something so we didn’t include them. That’s pretty much the whole thing we did. I think it just happened to be what we were playing at the time and so we just put it out.”
A seasoned artist like Johnson have a deep and rich catalog of music to draw from, with fans often demanding that certain songs to be performed each and every time. It’s often a challenge for artists to keep their earlier work fresh while repeatedly performing them. I asked Eric if the early songs have a different feel and meaning for him now as he performs them today than they did in the beginning.
“I think it happens naturally because you’ve played it so many times. The one saving grace, though, is that there’s so much room for improvisation in the songs we do – there’s a fast section where we can just kinda make up stuff in the moment so it changes all the time. So that part of it’s gonna be different even though I’ve played it for many years. But, other than that, yeah, I pretty much hafta play it as I have been playin’ it. You have to work at it to make it work for you but it’s doable.”
I asked Johnson to pick a “calling card” song that he feels would be the best “advertisement” for the album.
“Well, you know, I liked the way ‘Manhattan’ turned out on it. That one turned out pretty good. I enjoy that one a whole lot. I like playing ‘Mr. PC’. That one’s fun.”
I complimented Johnson on how he fuses jazz with rock. He laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s my identity crisis!"
With so many years of touring under his belt, I wondered how has touring changed for the guitarist these days as compared to the beginning of his career?
“I love being home but I love touring. I’m good for a month out there before I start getting ready to go home. But I love it! It’s a lot of fun for me. I think having the opportunity to play for people – it’s a blessing to be able to do that, so I enjoy it.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Eric Johnson has worked for or with a wide range of top talent. I asked if there was anyone he hasn’t worked with that he would like to.
“I’d love to work with Jeff Beck someday . . . Stevie Wonder. There are a million people I’d love to maybe work with. Yeah! Those two I’d love to work with! I’m getting to work with Mike Stern now. That’s a real dream come true.”
To the question as to how many guitars he owns and what he considers to be the “holy grail” of guitars, Johnson responded, “You know, I own about half as many as I used to. I used to have a bunch of guitars. I only have about seventeen or eighteen now. I’ve kind of thinned it all out and just kept the ones that I enjoy playing. I don’t really collect stuff that I don’t play anymore so I’ve kinda gotten rid of those. I just like the old Strats and the old Gibsons and the old Martins – just like any other person on the planet – the good stuff! Ha! Ha!
“But, a holy grail? I have an old ‘50’s Strat - which I like that a lot. That’s kind of one of the nice ones to have today.”
When he mentioned that Strat, I mentioned that James Burton told me when I interviewed him that he still had the first Fender he ever owned that his mom had bought for him. Dropping that name got us off on a little lovefest about Burton with me concluding that I would love to see Burton and Johnson play together.
“Well, you know, I’ve played at his festival that he does. In fact, I just got a text from a friend of mine who was talking to him and he wanted me to come out there in August so might be doing that again this August. I’m not sure.”
What does the next year and five years look like for Eric Johnson?
“Well, we’ve got the tour in August and we’ve got the (Experience) Hendrix tour in September again. That actually starts in Florida and goes all the way to San Francisco. In November, Mike (Stern) and I are gonna do the Mike Stern/E.J. tour for a few weeks. That’s the East Coast. Then Mike and I are doing the West Coast in January and February. Between now and then, I’m working on an acoustic record. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for years and have just been busy and never got around to it. I want to try to finish it up.”
My final question to this guitar great was: After you’ve played your last gig and gone on to the great gig in the sky, what do you hope your legacy is and how do you want to be remembered?
“Good question! I just hope that I made people smile a little bit – just made people feel good. You know, life’s tough. We all have to get whittled down and go through challenges – ups and downs. I’d like to be in the camp of just trying to make somebody happy for a second or two. That’s my philosophy. That’s why I like to see movies that I can lose myself in and they make me wider or bigger or taller instead of going to a movie that stresses me out or depresses me. I’m like, ‘That can happen in normal life!’”
Keep up with the latest in Eric Johnson’s career at the following two websites: