Culture Room, Fort Lauderdale
In the realm of modern guitar heroes, few people have enjoyed careers as successful as Eric Johnson's. Though Johnson happens to be a singer and a songwriter, his unbelievably deft prowess as a guitarist is what has earned him an undyingly loyal group of fans in addition to a spot in the pantheon of the most important ax-stranglers of the past 20 years. Friday night, Johnson and his plethora of vintage guitars, amps, and effects units took South Florida fans of guitar music to school at the Culture Room.
Just about everyone there wore a shirt with a silk-screened Gibson or Fender logo, and then there was that guy with one of those buttoned-down shirts that had a Jimi Hendrix graphic on it. However, my favorite bit of guitar fashion was definitely one gentleman's pair of Van Halen-striped Converse high-tops. Bill and Ted would approve.
The predominantly male audience waited through what felt like the majority of the Concert for George Harrison DVD while Johnson undoubtedly warmed up backstage for the night of fleet-fingered fretboard acrobatics.
Around 9:20, the soft-spoken guitarist from Texas made his way to the stage. After a quip about the 60-cycle hum emanating from his amp rig -- a hum that most audiences would never have noticed in the first place -- Johnson ripped into the first song of his set, trusty two-tone sunburst late '50s Fender Stratocaster in hand.
His signature glassy, clean sound brought a round of massive applause from the audience as he worked through the start of the second song of the night. When Johnson plays with this tone, created via a pair of vintage Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers, his guitar sounds like a large harp or some other angelic instrument. As he wove intriguing passages of linear flourishes and moving chords together, Johnson brought new meaning to the term dynamic.
"Higher Landrons," a fan favorite, brought the tempo up a bit and the energy in the room up a lot. The song displays just about every lick and trick the guitar slinger holds in his arsenal and carries through Johnson's vintage Marshall stack via his trademark "ten tone violin" sound.
Unfortunately, the lack of volume was an issue. Johnson suffered a debilitating bout of tinnitus a few years back, caused by years of playing in front of the very amps he had with him tonight. This time, though, they were dialed back significantly, most likely to protect the man's recently recovered hearing, and some of the impact was lost for sure.
The evening's set featured a good amount of songs in which Johnson sang, something he does less out of necessity to craft and more to use the vocals to operate as vehicles for his guitar work. Though he does a fine job on the whole, I've always felt the vocals to be a bit too delicate for my tastes, and a lot of the songs he sings are slower ones. However, one of highlights of the night included his version of the Hendrix classic "Power to Love," which featured Johnson's distinct vocal and guitar taking on the track and his twisting of Hendrix's licks into his own linear wizardry.
Fans showed love frequently throughout the night for Johnson, particularly one gentleman who shouted "You can do no wrong" between a number of songs.
Johnson spanned the range of his works in different genres, all guitarcentric, of course, and the smooth jazz of "Manhattan" was extremely well-received. The slide guitar solo played in the middle break of "Manhattan" had a bit of a Jeff Beck flavor to it and brought an uproarious applause from the already excited group of shred fans. Johnson mouthed a "thank you" in reply, though he did not break concentration from the string-skipping and bending madness he was busy orchestrating.
Another major highlight was the burning rock of "Last House on the Block," which segued into a long-winded jam session. "Last House" held more swagger than most of the songs he had selected until that point and served as a great jumping-off point into jam land for Johnson and his trio, which included bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann. The band jammed on soundscapes that ranged from quiet and gentle tinkering to outright blasting rock and also saw the volume level reach what it probably should have been the entire night.
While "Last House" served as a perfect way to keep up the energy created by the Hendrix number, the note-for-note reading of a John Coltrane song that followed felt out of place and created a lull in the performance that didn't really let up until the encores.
The energy returned to the room for the track "Nothing Can Keep Me From You," off of Johnson's groundbreaking release Ah Via Musicom. The absolute highlight of the night was Johnson's performance of what one would call his biggest hit, if an instrumental guitar piece was ever a hit, "Cliffs of Dover," also off of Ah Via Musicom. "Cliffs" started with its highly improvised introduction, hints at the theme to come, and then the piece itself, which saw Johnson eschewing some of the normal riffs for some speedy improvised runs. Following the first encore of "Cliffs," Johnson returned to the stage to play a rather awkward reworking of "Proud Mary" that simply did not suit the nature of the song. However, the third encore, another tribute to Hendrix in the form of "The Wind Cries Mary," was the perfect way to end the night and absolved Johnson of his sins against the work of Fogerty.
Though Johnson's playing was accurate, impressive, and, in general, really good, he seemed to lack some of the fire that has been documented so well over the years and that you can find on just about any YouTube video of performances past. Between the low volume levels, the large number of slower numbers, and a general vibe of impatience on his part, the show felt a little bit phoned-in. However, for guitar fans, a phoned-in Eric Johnson show is still heads and shoulders above their average Friday night's plans.