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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1621

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Eric Johnson: Up Close
by George Graham

(Vortexan/EMI 77732 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/1/2010)

In its heyday, rock music spawned guitar heroes, players who achieved a near legendary status largely because of their association with popular bands. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page became household names. With so much commercial pop music being dominated by synthesizers and samples these days, there are fewer guitar icons who achieve that kind of general recognition. But there still remains a kind of rock guitar culture with lots of fans supporting magazines and websites. And interestingly, with the Guitar Hero video games, new electric guitar fans are being cultivated.

Among the rock guitar cognoscente, a name that is looked upon with a degree of reverence is Eric Johnson, who has just released his first new studio album in five years called Up Close.

A native of and resident of Austin, Texas, the now-56-year old perennially youthful-looking guitarist, composer and vocalist had an early start, taking up the guitar at age 11. A member of a musical family, he and this three sisters all took piano lessons, and Eric continues to play keyboards from time to time. But he soon started attracting attention on guitar, joining his first band at age 15. After traveling to Africa with his family, upon returning, he became a member of a fusion band called the Electromagnets in 1974 at age 18. The trio recorded two albums, which were later released nationally. But during the band's existence, the Electromagnets were not signed to a record label and eventually broke up in 1977. Johnson became a studio guitarist, playing on recordings by Cat Stevens, Christopher Cross and Carole King among others. Johnson did record a solo album, but it did not get wide distribution.

After an appearance Public TV's Austin City Limits, Johnson was eventually signed to Warner Brothers records which released his 1986 recording Tones. It gave him a national audience, and soon attracted the attention of the rock guitar magazines and fans. We featured it on this album review series some 24 years ago.

Johnson is a notorious perfectionist in the studio, so his subsequent releases have been infrequent, and he has been known to scrap whole parts of an album and start over. It was 1990 when he released the album that really cemented his reputation, Ah Via Musicom, which won Johnson a Grammy Award for best rock instrumental. Subsequent studio albums came in 1996 and 2005, with some live recordings and collections of previously recorded material released in the meantime.

So for Eric Johnson's fans, who consistently voted him number one in Guitar Player magazine polls until he was retired from competition, it is something of an event that he has released a new studio recording. And it does not disappoint. The Texas fret-man gives us more of his impressive fiery but tasteful playing, and his trademark layers of often shimmering guitar sounds, with music that incorporates bits of art rock, jazz-rock fusion, and this time, some blues and some songs that are not that far from the work he did back in the day with Carole King and Cat Stevens.

Although Johnson is an appealing vocalist with a high airy tenor, he is joined by a trio of guest singers, with the best known being veteran rocker Steve Miller. Up Close also features a trio of guest guitarists, including Jimmy Vaughan and Sonny Landreth. The personnel varies throughout the album, but includes long-time colleagues bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tommy Taylor who go back to his 1986 Tones album, and even bassist Kyle Brock, who was part of the Electromagnets with Johnson back in 1974.

Eric Johnson won his Grammy Award for instrumental music, and this is the majority of Up Close. There are also a few little spacey -- what a previous generation might call "psychedelic" -- interludes similar to what Johnson has done in the past. The CD is programmed to flow nicely from one track to the next with overlapping pieces and those interludes, so deconstructing the album as separate downloaded tracks will definitely detract from the experience.

Leading off is one of those spacey bits, a track called Awaken. <<>>

It serves as an introduction to a rocking instrumental called Fat Daddy, which kicks in with the trademark Eric Johnson sound, marked by his colorful palette of guitar sounds, and clean, tight playing. <<>>

The first of the vocals is called Brilliant Room, sung by Malford Milligan. It's a strong rocker but the energy levels starts high and doesn't have anywhere to go from there. <<>>

A definite highlight of the album is a track named Texas, a vintage blues tune by Buddy Miles and Mike Bloomfield. A slow blues seems almost the opposite of what one expects from the fast and fiery Eric Johnson. But he proves he can play the blues with the best, and throw in lots of interesting musical ideas, in the context of his impressive guitar work. Steve Miller is the guest lead vocalist. <<>> There is also a guest appearance by the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Jimmy Vaughan, and the two Texas guitarists are a nice study in contrasts. <<>>

A piece that might be considered a follow-up to Johnson's Grammy-winning tune Cliffs of Dover is piece called Gem. There's a lot of those instantly recognizable Eric Johnsonisms, the layered guitars and the kind of athletic jumps in pitch in his melodic lines. <<>>

Another guest vocalist on the album is Jonny Lang, who was something of a prodigy himself on guitar, though he only sings here. The tune is called Austin and it seems autobiographical. <<>>

We finally get to hear Johnson sing on track 10 of this 15-track CD. The tune is Arithmetic, and it combines a kind of sentimental mood with Johnson's cornucopia of guitars. <<>>

Johnson throws in a little country-style guitar on a track titled On the Way, which features Steve Henning as guest guitarist. <<>>

The CD ends on a somewhat inauspicious note with a song called Your Book. It's almost an easy-listening style pop-song ballad with corny background vocals, on which even Johnson's guitar lines are a bit clichéd. <<>>

Eric Johnson's new CD Up Close came five years after his last new studio recording, and for the notoriously perfectionist Johnson, that's a relatively short time. But among the many fans of his guitar work, it was a long wait. For the most part, it was worth the anticipation. His guitar work is as impressive as ever, both in terms of his playing and his guitar sounds. The stylistic range is a bit wider this time around, with his venture into the blues particularly successful. The added guests are a nice touch. His new material generally does not disappoint, but some of it does strongly resemble his previous work, which may be fine for many of his fans.

Our grade for sound quality is a B-plus. The mix and the palette of guitar sounds are outstanding, but the volume compression added to compete in the pointless CD loudness war, detracts from the dynamics and depth of the recording. I went back and listened to Johnson's Ah Via Musicom from nearly 20 years ago, before the CD loudness wars heated up, and it sounded so much better.

As this CD is being released, Eric Johnson is off on an acoustic guitar tour with two other guitarists. But he is definitely considered an electric guitar luminary. His new CD underscores his position.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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