Gig review: ERIC JOHNSON – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 3 April 2013

An Eric Johnson gig is a bit like stumbling on a secret society. He surreptitiously slunk on to the Empire stage to fill the venue with a rush of notes and an array of magical tones to restore the faith of his disciples, before leaving almost as quietly as he’d arrived.

The demographics of his crowd encouragingly suggested that he’s got a new generation of fans drawn in by his intricately woven guitar shapes. And much like Eric, they seemed impervious to the cavernous surroundings curiously at odds with music that demands intimacy.

Indeed, from the moment the sound crew missed half of Johnson’s brief introduction, to his subsequent hurried announcements, it was obvious this was going to be an evening when the guitarist was going to let this axe do the talking. And so it proved, as Eric delighted us with beautiful ascending woven solos and a velvet touch and tone over some tightly compressed interplay with his road hardened trio.

On several occasions he suckered us in with an aching tone and an understated dynamic, before suddenly taking off with an angular solo and a change of tempo, with little regard for what had gone before.

Johnson is a guitarist who immerses himself in the moment. His spider web noodling on ‘Battles We Have Won’ was a mixture of staggering technique and focus, but rather than break the tension and connect with his crowd, he was happy to let the fusiony piece float rather than evolve. At times he almost teetered on the brink of being crushed by the weight of expectation. Perhaps he was just lost in the moment, fleetingly detached from the arrangement, as his unfettered and exhilarating solos incrementally sought out new levels of intensity.

 

‘Zenland’ was full of restless dynamics and sudden spirals of notes, played with a weepy tone and carved with cut-glass precision over a rock solid rhythmic support. The autobiographical ‘Austin’ and the welcome balledic space of ‘FourMileTown’ provided his most accessible, melodic and meditative moments.

At this point, the show could have done with an anecdote or anything to break the tension, but as ever Eric let his guitar do the talking on the fluid fusion of ‘Fat Daddy’, full of stop-start dynamics, lightning runs and a vaguely eastern tone. Better still, was the jammed out version of ‘Last House On The Block,’ which opened with a heavier riff and featured some spacey phrasing, delicate harmonics, and a Hawaiian tone. Eric seemed truly in his element, mixing exciting improvisation and a dazzling technique with a Technicolor flash of guitar tones.

We could probably have done without the drum solo on the bebop feel of ‘Mr. JC’, and though the band did swing, the way they clustered together had the curious effect of almost shrinking their stage presence.

‘Manhattan’ provided a more relaxed jazzy arrangement with a Wes Montgomery meets Lee Ritenour feel, on a number well suited to Eric’s instinctive explorations.

‘When The Sun Meets The Sky’ was a plateau of rippling tones and sudden ascending bursts of notes, while he opted to crouch down in front of his giant speaker stacks to squeeze every last tonal possibility from Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’.

He reprised the Celtic feel of his best known ‘Cliffs of Dover’ and all too soon it was over, except that he turned to throw a handful of plectrums into the crowd in probably his most animated moment of the night.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Stephen Fourie


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