Fishman Artist // Eric Johnson"Revolutionary", "multifaceted", "transcendent", " these words have all been used in attempts to define Grammy-winner Eric Johnson. They touch on that part of his talent that makes him so valuable to us as an artist, the ever-unfolding aspect of his nature that causes each one of his albums to be eagerly anticipated by musicians and the public alike. His fans know that in creating his music, Johnson is not afraid to explore the emotional rivers of his talent, while still pushing the edge of virtuoso musicianship. All his projects, be they new studio recordings, side projects like the band Alien Love Child, or when he pulls together a collection of older songs that acknowledge the future, they all reveal this deep, forward flow in songwriting and performance.
It is this challenge that brings him to his most current project, Souvenir, a CD Johnson compiled from recordings he had stored in his personal "vault." Surprising in many aspects, Souvenir showcases Johnson's ability as an emotionally touching songwriter and musician. It is comprised of outtakes from previous album recording sessions, songs that have been performed live to great audience response but never quite fit on an album, and what Johnson describes as "just songs;" compelling works that show an intimate side his fans may find surprising. "I find that in all its humble aspects, there are some fun and interesting moments presented in these recordings," says Johnson.
Released in January of 2003 and available only on the internet, Souvenir's original intent was to help fill the gap between Johnson's major label releases. But according to initial mp3.com charting reports, Souvenir is poised to become one of Johnson's most popular recordings. As of the close of January 2003, the two featured singles, "Get to Go" and "Forever Yours," had broken into the top 10 in the categories of Rock and Pop, respectively, and were still rising. They were competing for chart position in the top 10 with No Doubt, John Mayer, Madonna, Michele Branch and other platinum-selling artists. The album received nearly 65,000 plays in the first 7 weeks it was made available on mp3.com.
Souvenir has a timeline that stretches from "Get to Go", completed in 2002, to the gem, "Dusty," which takes us to1976 for a performance during Johnson's very first solo gig, and on back to one of the earliest works he ever committed to tape, "Fanfare One." He created this instrumental piece at home on his first four-track in 1973. Recording over his father's old medical lecture tapes, Johnson integrated the lecturer's voice into the composition, backwards. This track lets us witness the early existence of that rare, edgy spark in a young artist; the undefinable spark which has stayed with Johnson and helped him grow into an ever-innovating virtuoso.
It was in the 70's, in Austin, Texas, that a young Eric Johnson was revealed. He was the guitar player in a band called Mariani and his unusual, ardent talent immediately caught the attention of other musicians. "When I heard Eric," Johnny Winter recalls, "he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age." At 21, he was a member of the legendary Electromagnets. Their intense instrumental jams and live shows earned them a rabid cult following and set Johnson's place in the constellation of great guitarists. "Eric Johnson is amazing," recounted Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, "this might sound silly, but if Jimi Hendrix had gone on to study with Howard Roberts for about eight years, you'd have what this kid strikes me as."
Post-Electromagnets, Johnson began to expand on his talents as a songwriter and singer within the Eric Johnson Group and much later, with his band, Avenue. It was during this time that he recorded his first album, Seven Worlds, which finally saw the light of day when it was released 1999. He also stretched out on the road with Carole King, and recorded with Cat Stevens and on Christopher Cross' popular debut album.
All the while Johnson's underground reputation as one of the most intuitive and technically brilliant guitarists in the world continued to grow. Austin City Limits showcased his performance in 1985, the first of four appearances. Guitar stores were known to have "EJ" shrines. But being a fan was still like membership in a mystic society, his name a special password among the select few. His peers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Morse, and Pat Metheny (who, along with Johnson, were all born within the same four-month period), were already realizing world wide exposure through recording contracts. But Johnson remained a darling of the underground, expanding his eclectic style and perfecting that violin tone in tightly packed clubs. His first Guitar Player cover story came out just before his debut album was released. It was appropriately titled "Who Is Eric Johnson And Why Is He On Our Cover?"
When Johnson's first album, the Grammy-nominated Tones, came out in 1986, serious recognition arrived. Then success kicked the door down in 1990, when the certified gold, Grammy-winning Ah Via Musicom was released. "Ah Via Musicom is an artistic triumph," enthused Guitar Player, "as powerful a statement for Eric Johnson as Electric Ladyland was for Jimi Hendrix." This record gave Johnson the unique honor of becoming the first artist to have three instrumentals from the same album chart in the Top 10 in any format. "Cliffs of Dover", Grammy winner for Best Rock Instrumental, also became the first instrumental to break into the Top Five on Radio & Records "AOR Tracks" and Billboard's "Rock Tracks" since those charts were created.
Nearly three years of touring followed Ah Via Musicom. Johnson then set to work on his next studio recording, Venus Isle, but also took time off for side projects. He toured with one of his childhood heroes, B.B. King, and guested on recordings by Chet Atkins and Dweezil Zappa.
Johnson's promise had arrived. By this time he had nabbed the "Best Overall" guitarist award from Guitar Player for four straight years; the fifth year he was inducted into their "Gallery of Greats". Musician Magazine listed him among the "100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century"; and again and again readers of Austin, Texas entertainment weekly the Austin Chronicle voted Johnson the city's "Best Electric Guitarist" and "Best Acoustic Guitarist" in the yearly poll. Their year 2000 poll named him "Electric Guitarist of the Decade" and one of the top five "Musicians of the Decade".
Johnson's last studio recording, Venus Isle, with the popular single "S.R.V.", a tribute to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, was released in 1996. Evenly split between vocal and instrumental songs, it demonstrates the refinement of Johnson's vocal style. His developing virtuosity as a keyboardist and producer is also evident in this collection. He described the album as "kind of spiritual, kind of romantic. I was trying to have fewer arrows pointing at me in the performance and more pointing at some intangible emotive feelings."
Upon the release of Venus Isle, Johnson proved he could shred with the best of them when he went on the road and recorded with guitar gurus Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for the hugely successful G3 Tour. He also contributed the song "The First Nowell" to Steve Vai's project Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas Album.
One of Johnson's most successful side projects is Alien Love Child, a blues trio that he created with former Electromagnet's drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Chris Maresh as an outlet to blow off steam during the Venus Isle recording sessions. The band released their first album, Live and Beyond, in 2000 on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label to overwhelming critical acclaim. Alien Love Child swept the 2001 Austin Chronicle Reader's Poll by winning Band of the Year, Favorite Blues Band, Favorite Single ("Rain"), Best Electric Guitar, Best Bass, and Best Drums. "Rain," the luxurious Wes Montgomery-inspired instrumental penned by bassist Chris Maresh, was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Pop Instrumental category in 2001.
Currently performing with Johnson on the Souvenir tour is drummer Tommy Taylor, who played on the albums Tones, Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle. Reunited with Johnson for the first time since the critically acclaimed and wildly popular Ah Via Musicom tour, Taylor was a charter member of the group Christopher Cross and he has toured or recorded with numerous other artists including Jake Andrews, Lance Keltner and Mandy Mercier.
Now, as Eric Johnson moves deeper into the new millenium, this commanding artist is expanding his creative options even more. Not only will this year find him on the road touring behind Souvenir, he is also contemplating a solo guitar tour, and he is on the verge of putting out another studio album of fresh material on a major label. With the release of each new album, you can be sure of one thing: whatever emotional place the music came from, whatever ethereal current Johnson wove into his songs, they will all touch us deeply as they carry us forward.