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Blues Traveler: Singer-Guitarist Eric Johnson Discusses Why He Went to Europe to Record his New Album 

Singer-guitarist Eric Johnson, who'll turn 60 this year (he jokes that he might get a mug with "geezer" on it to celebrate), was 11 years old when he picked up his first guitar.

"I had heard the Ventures records and the Rolling Stones and Beatles and the Yardbirds," he says via phone. "I played piano so I was able to transpose some of what I knew to guitar. I had a bit of a leg up on it. It was really a challenge to learn. I sat around and listened to the records I loved and picked out guitar parts and learned them by ear."

He formed a band when he was 13, and the group would play cover songs at fraternity parties.

"God knows what I was doing at fraternity parties at that age," he laughs.

By the time he was 15, he had started to grasp the essentials and excel; singer-songwriter Christopher Cross introduced him to some folks at Warner Bros. who subsequently signed him to a record deal.

"Being in a power trio at that time was an outsider thing," he says. "I know it's hard to understand because it's so household now. Even to see a Fender guitar then was so rare and weird. To hear them with these fuzztone effects and reverb and big amps, that was like from Mars. It's hard to explain because that's when it began. It was very outside and very rare. All the radical kids were into it. The sound was something you've never heard before. When Hendrix first came out, you didn't even know what instrument it was. That's how fresh and weird it was. It was very inspiring and very cool."

Johnson has an extensive catalog of albums he's released since the late '60s. For his latest album, Europe Live, he recorded several shows overseas and culled together the 14 best performances.

"They're avid music listeners," he says when asked about the decision to make a live album in Europe. "The typical European audience is really open-minded about whatever. It's more of an elegant respect thing. We were in Europe and the label wanted us to record a few of the shows just for fun. We weren't going to make a live album. We recorded three shows and when I got home, I thought we could make a record out of it."

The album opens with a two-minute intro that features an intricate jam that segues nicely into the prickly "Zenland," a tune that features heavy blues/rock riffs. In "Austin," he reflects on growing up in the Texas city he currently calls home.

"I have a lot of memories of Austin from when I was a kid," he says. "It's still a great town but it's way different than when I was a kid. People who move here think it's a great place. There was a certain thing about it from years ago that was cool too and even better. I wrote about it and the precautions that people might want to take with any city that becomes too big. You destroy the natural habit and it becomes a double-edged sword."

That theme also finds its way into "Forty Mile Town," a song he wrote about Galveston.

"It could mean any small town that's 30 or 40 miles outside of a big town," he says of the song. "I was in Galveston when I got the idea for it. It's about 20 years old now."

The new album also includes an acoustic segment, a staple in the live show.

"There's a real intimacy to it," he says of playing acoustic. "It's just you and one instrument. It makes the music have to work or not work. You don't the extra stuff so it has to work on its own. There's something personal about a single instrument and voice."

Given that guitar heroes are becoming harder to find now that we live in a world where electronic dance music and pop rock are more popular than the blues, does Johnson think the guitar hero is going to die?

"There are lots of good players. I like those guys in Explosions in the Sky," he says. "They're great. Precious Fathers have cool guitar stuff. The guys in Alt-J are really cool. They do some beautiful stuff. Tallest Man on Earth is a good finger-picking folk guy. They took that Daniel Lanois thing and ran with it. It's like an alternative surf guitar sound, like with multiple guitar parts. It's cool. If you listen to the guy in Phoenix and the kind of chords he plays, they're different but beautiful. They make those pop songs work. I think it's cool because the younger bands are picking up the guitar and doing cool stuff. It's not overstated or in your face. It's just designed to compliment a great song. At the end of the day, that's the most important thing anyway."

And how has Johnson evolved as a musician?

"I just try to stay open and learn new stuff," he says. "There's always a new way to approach something. You're limited by your scope of what you think you are. It's almost like you own some land and put a fence around it but you decide where the fence goes. If you have this epiphany, you can realize that if you remove the fence, you can discover what else is there."

Eric Johnson

8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3. Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $25.50-$35.50, kentstage.com.

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