After a performance at the Odeon Concert Club in the mid-’90s, guitarist Eric Johnson spoke about how he was singing more each night because the tour had been going on long enough that he had become comfortable with his voice. There were echoes of that moment during his show on Sunday evening at the Kent Stage. A member of the audience yelled out early in the set for someone to turn up Johnson’s vocals and the soft-spoken Austin guitar virtuoso humorously replied with a shy grin, “I don’t know if you really want to do that, because then you’d be able to hear them!”
Once notoriously meticulous, both onstage and in the studio, Johnson has loosened up quite a lot in recent times. After often spending years in the studio working on albums, he’s become better at finding his way around what he once termed as the “abyss of potential impossibilities” to create music and then let go of it so that people can actually hear it.
He demonstrated that progression as he brought out a new song called “Better Man” as the second of two solo acoustic numbers to open his set, introducing the track (which comes from a batch of material slated for a long-planned acoustic album that he’s been working on) as one that’s “so new that if I make a mistake, you won’t be able to tell.”
That was something that seemed to be a constant throughout the night as Johnson, joined by longtime bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann turned out a confident performance that had both the expected precision, but also a noticeably relaxed and casual feeling. He and the band followed the initial solo acoustic tracks with over 90 minutes of electric material, a spread of songs that featured tracks both new and old from his own repertoire and also a choice selection of reverently chosen covers including the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” “Tears Of A Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and of course as a longtime devotee, Johnson also found room to work in “Fire” from the Jimi Hendrix catalog to close out the set.
Fans who first came to know Johnson via the mountain climbing riffs of “Cliffs of Dover” from his 1990 album Ah Via Musicom
wouldn’t be left hanging as he closed out the main set with an extended rendition that left him alone on the stage, teasing the beginning of the song for more than five minutes with a solo electric jam, prior to being eventually rejoined by Maresh and Salzmann to wrap things up with a blistering version of the track.
Overall, the evening’s performance was a very welcome return from Johnson, who has performed only sporadically in the Cleveland area in recent years. From the size of the crowd in attendance at the Kent Stage, it was clear that his presence had definitely been missed and all indications are that he’ll have plenty of reasons to make his way back for shows here in the future.
In addition to the new music that he shared with the Kent audience, he’s got even more on the way. Backstage after the show, Johnson, who recently released a new live album called Europe Live
, shared details of a forthcoming new release that he recently wrapped up with jazz guitarist Mike Stern. According to Johnson, they “cut it live over a few days” and he says they’re on track to share the results of their collaboration in November. From the way he spoke about the recordings, it definitely sounds like something to look forward to.