Album review: ERIC JOHNSON – Europe Live

Eric Johnson - Europe Live

Provogue [Release date 23.06.14]

It’s 28 years since Eric Johnson’s head turning ‘Tones’ album and his signature tone remains a primary concern on the excellent ‘Europe Live’. It’s an album that showcases his exciting flowing style and pushes fusion tinged blues-rock a step closer towards the mainstream.

‘Europe Live’ really does sound like a proper live album, with the ebb and flow of a gig, packed with thrilling moments of breathtaking virtuosity,  band interplay, and a requisite audience response.

Much has been written about Eric Johnson’s incredible technique and deft use of tone, but as ‘Europe Live’ demonstrates, he’s one of the few contemporary guitarists who manages to combine feel, tone and excitement to great effect.

Each solo is a work of art and a narrative in its own right, as he extemporizes on a theme and takes it into different directions that weren’t probably even thought about at the outset of the song.

Spend just 5 just minutes in the company of an Eric Johnson solo and you will be swept up in a celebration of the moment. The fact that each one of these magical excursions is an integral part of a song tells you all you need to know about a live album that revels in spontaneity.

On John Coltane’s ‘Mr. P.C.’ for example, he sets himself the tough task of transposing his delicate touch, tone and brilliant technique into meaningful emotion, over his bristling rhythm section. And he does so with a breathless exercise in visceral intensity, in which even Chris Maresh’s drum solo is a meaningful and expressive part of the arrangement.

There are some great dynamics at play, with Eric’s gentle pushes, probes and sudden note flurries, counter-weighted by more relaxed parts that always leave enough space to suggest there’s yet more to explore.

The short, fast changing, flowing instrumental opener ‘Intro’, sets the benchmark for a captivating album. Eric’s gently brushed strings allows him to achieve a violin style tone that sets the benchmark for the album as a whole.

He segues into more up tempo rocker ‘Zenland’ with an altogether bigger tone. He hovers over the track and his attack is masterful, with a nuanced emphasis on a wide array of tones while making sure the whole thing somehow fits together.

He revels in solos full of incremental surges on the uplifting and autobiographical ‘Austin’ in perfect sync with the tension building rhythm section of drummer Wayne Salzmann and bassist Chris Maresh.

On ‘Manhattan’ he temporarily abandons his warm tone for a far more trebly attack with a notably cleaner sound, as he paints his own audio portrait, before slipping back to a fatter sound for a brief solo.

He rocks out on a re-recording ‘Zap’, an up tempo fusion number with a soaring melody that goes back to 1978. It’s full of stop-start rhythms and a ripping bass solo that leads to an exhilarating finale and gets a deserved roar from the crowd.

And then almost as if realising he’s hit a momentary high, he breaks things down in acoustic mode for the lyrical ‘Songs For Life’.

The short and sharp ‘Fatdaddy’ illustrates his ability to launch himself into the most intense explorations at the drop of a hat, dragging his audience along with him into more expansive violin style soundscapes over a rumbling bass, on a piece that makes light of his power trio line-up.

If there’s a criticism, it’s simply that his on-stage announcements tend to be mumbled and at times inaudible, ironic proof it was needed, that what you hear is exactly what you get in concert.

But hell, EJ lets his guitar do his talking for him, so much so, that the excellent vocal on the bluesy opening of the extended ‘The Last House On The Block’ is no more than a precursor to his next dazzling solo. He duly takes the piece into an ethereal realm after the drop-down, letting his notes percolate and simmer and fill the room with a meditative feel.

A momentary pause and a subsequent big toned attack allows him to explore wave upon wave of meandering notes, as drummer Salzmann beautifully shapes things up. It’s a perfect example of the bands intuitive interplay and eagerness to stretch out when they can on a definitive track.

I’ve always enjoyed Eric’s flowing style, but tracks like this nail his unique tone, focussed intensity and his ability to build up a meaningful solo before imaginatively searching for a resolution.

He’s a guitarist who is equally at home exploring ambient tones, leaning into solos with rock style intensity, or perfecting the simplest of songs, and it is this arc of exploration that gives ‘Europe Live’ its substance.

Listen to the jammed out encore of ‘Evinrude Fever’ for example, and you’re listening to a road sharpened, inspired band, while ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ remains the perfect set closer adding a jaunty, almost Celtic flavour to his melodic lines.

‘Europe Live’ is superb live album and serves as a thrilling introduction to those still unfamiliar with one of the most enthralling players of his generation. Eric Johnson’s sparkling music is a joyous celebration of the here and now. His on stage persona might be introverted but when he flies with his trusty trio, he’s reaching for the stars.  *****

Review by Pete Feenstra


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