Eric Johnson At The Canyon Club

  • Eric Johnson (left) and Chris Maresh (right) perform at The Canyon in Agoura Hills, Calif., on July 10
    Photo: The Recording Academy

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By Tim McPhate
Agoura Hills, Calif.

The Lone Star State was represented in six-string splendor on a lazy Southern California summer evening as Eric Johnson, the Austin, Texas-born artist who is legendary in guitar circles, made a stop at The Canyon in Agoura Hills, Calif., on July 10 in support of his latest release, 2010's Up Close.

Arguably Texas' finest guitar export (he's certainly in the conversation among the likes of greats Billy Gibbons, Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Johnny Winter), with Johnson you know you're always in for a hearty serving of musical delights. His band featured a stripped-down power trio format similar to classic bands such as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Chris Maresh on bass and Wayne Salzmann on drums.

With a vast catalog of songs dating back to his sterling 1986 debut album, Tones, it was nice to hear four new songs from the aforementioned Up Close. In particular, the soaring instrumental "Gem" featured absolutely sublime guitar work, including elegant Lenny Breau-inspired harp harmonics, a crystalline clean tone that filled up the cavernous hall and delicate lead lines. Also representing Up Close were "Austin," a vocal number that doubles as a tribute to Johnson's hometown set in the days of his youth, the groovy "Fatdaddy" and the boogie-fused "Vortexan."

Johnson played the first cover song of the evening in the form of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence," which was marked by some dazzling chordal embellishments. After finishing up the song, Johnson joked, "That was just like the Beatles, except John [Lennon] played a Gretsch, and I played a Fender," as he looked down at his beautiful black-and-white Fender Stratocaster signature model.

The Canyon morphed into a jazz joint when Johnson and his mates swung into John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." Johnson switched over to his candy apple red Gibson SG, improvising within the harmonic framework with the maturity of a seasoned jazzer. Maresh and Salzmann more than held their own as they traded inspired four-bar solos. Speaking of jazz, Johnson showcased a brand-new song in the form of something he referred to as "Title," a play on the fact that the song has yet to be furnished with an actual title. Another Johnson instrumental jazz composition in the heritage of "Manhattan" from 1996's Venus Isle and "Hesitant" from 2005's Bloom, Johnson thumbed the main melody utilizing octaves a la jazz great Wes Montgomery.

Johnson then dusted off the Bob Dylan classic "Like A Rolling Stone," a faithful version but definitely marked by a raising of the guitar ante. No stranger to covering Dylan, Johnson recorded "My Back Pages" on Bloom.

As another added treat, another new Johnson vocal composition was rolled out in the form of "Anthem For Today." The song was built upon a positive theme with a message Johnson described as being about "unity and the connection between us all."

Next up was my personal highlight of the evening, the gleaming "When The Sun Meets The Sky." With a title that serves as a metaphor for the spark between a special couple, this song has been a favorite of mine since I first cracked open Venus Isle 15 years ago, and it always seems to be taken to another level in concert. Aside from his sophisticated chording and emotive vocals, Johnson's linear pentatonic-laced solos cascaded across the room like a beautiful summer sunset while his extended improvised outro simply defied superlatives. After the song, the crowd gave Johnson and his band a deserved standing ovation.

Speaking of superlatives, his introductory solo leading into the instrumental classic "Cliffs Of Dover" was another high point. Johnson weaved in and out of major and minor tonalities utilizing his lush clean tone before switching to his buttery smooth lead tone to conclude his orchestrated symphonic prelude. Once he played the intro theme to "Cliffs…" the crowd cheered their approval. Featured on his 1991 album Ah Via Musicom, the GRAMMY-winning song is a must for any serious greatest guitar song list and a benchmark for aspiring woodshedders.

Johnson came out for an encore and closed the evening with a spirited tribute to one of his biggest influences, Jimi Hendrix, with the psychedelic "Are You Experienced?"

In addition to his own compositions, Johnson covered some nice bases on this evening — the Beatles, Les Paul, Coltrane, Dylan, and Hendrix, which appropriately gives a snapshot of just how diverse and seasoned a musician he is. While his fabled technical prowess precedes him (after all, this is the man who once wowed Prince), there is more to Johnson than guitar. He is the complete package — a creative singer/songwriter who is one with his instrument. Throughout the evening, Johnson danced romantically across the stage with his guitar as he tapped switches on his pedal board and changed his trademark tones from dirty to clean and back again to evoke different moods and textures — all effortlessly. Pure sonic bliss.

After the concert, I dropped by the merchandise table and saw a poster that featured the heading "Eric Johnson: The Texas Tone Ranger." Talk about a fitting description.

Set List
"Dear Prudence" (Beatles cover)
"The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise" (Les Paul cover)
"Mr. P.C." (John Coltrane cover)
"Hard Times"
"Like A Rolling Stone" (Bob Dylan cover)
"Anthem For Today"
"When The Sun Meets The Sky"
Guitar solo/"Cliffs Of Dover"
"Are You Experienced?" (Jimi Hendrix cover)

To catch Eric Johnson in a city near you, click here for tour dates.

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