In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel released their fourth studio album, Bookends. Guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson book-ended his Sunday night concert in Cleveland with two of the dynamic duo’s most famous tunes, both of which appear on The Graduate movie soundtrack.
But Johnson didn’t render either S&G cover on one of his signature Fender Stratocasters or his Gibson ES-335. In fact, the Austin six-string wizard didn’t use conventional electric guitars at all during his ninety-minute performance at Music Box Supper Club in the Flats.
Instead, Johnson went full-on acoustic, employing a couple steel-string instruments (and one nylon-string classical guitar) for a dozen or so selections that showcased his massive finger-style chops.
Quite a change for a tone-savvy maestro known for his plugged-in fretboard prowess: Johnson’s breakthrough 1990 album Ah Via Musicom stunned the guitar community (and mesmerized casual rock fans) with its violin-like riffing and bluesy breaks. A promotional video for the sultry “Trademark” received heavy rotation on MTV that year, while explosive “Cliffs of Dover” won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental…and became a go-to number for guitar upstarts looking to show off.
Before long, Johnson was playing the late night talk show circuit and touring alongside hard rock “shredders” Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. He’s a veteran of the semi-annual Experience Hendrix tour, frequent guest at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads charity summit, and respected contributor to guitar-oriented books and magazines.
In 2014 Johnson teamed with fellow guitar hero Mike Stern on the album Eclectic.
But Johnson’s latest effort, EJ, is a stripped-down solo affair that portrays a very different side of the fleet-fingered blues man. Johnson rendered several of the disc’s sparkling entries at Music Box—starting with a retooled (but resplendent) “Mrs. Robinson”—and seasoned the set with acoustic interpretations of other songs from throughout his three-decade catalog.
“It’s different up here without a band,” mused Johnson, who remained seated throughout.
“With a band you feel all dressed up, but in this setting you’re exposed…like you’ve gone out in your underwear!”
Johnson needn’t have worried. Though the Cleveland stop was one of the first (if not the first) on Eric’s acoustic tour, he certainly appeared to have his act together. He used a delicate touch (and pinch harmonics) on “Gift of Love,” cooed about a knight who would be king on “Fatherly Downs,” and launched into a frantic country western bit with “Tribute to Jerry Reed.”
Routed through a pair of AER 200-watt XL Combo amps, Johnson’s tone was crystalline and crisp, his string attack tempered by his plectrum and nails. He came off like James Taylor or Cat Stevens on steroids during “Song for Irene” and clamped a capo on his guitar neck for the bright “If I Do.”
“Hope this is agreeing with your dinner,” said Johnson, who jokingly threatened to have technicians turn the Presidential debate on the big screen.
If guitar fans were astounded by Johnson’s acoustic slight-of-hand, they must’ve been downright flabbergasted by his piano skills. Sliding behind a Yamaha baby grand, Eric channeled George Winston on the elegant “Water Under the Bridge” and sang of losing loved ones on “Different Folks.” He paid homage to John Lennon (it was the Beatles guitarist’s birthday) with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” hands maneuvering over the ivories until he’d put his own stamp on the Help! song. “Under the Sun” was delicate and moving.
Johnson’s soft voice came through clearer at the piano microphone. He’s no Daryl Hall and knows it, at one point quipping that he could use some auto-tuning. Johnson said he’s not a fan of synthesized “robot” sounds and prefers the bare-bones pipes of George Jones, Hank Williams, and Stevie Wonder to the enhanced vocals of modern pop stars.
While Eric may lack the lung power and range of those singers, his voice was vulnerable and organic (like Dan Fogelberg), and his words poetic and sincere (like Christopher Cross, with whom Eric has played).
Returning center-stage, Johnson wielded a nylon-string guitar on “Desert Song” (from 1986’s Tones), his approach a wicked combination of Andres Segovia flamenco and J.S. Bach “Bourree.”
“Song for Irene” (from 1978’s Seven Worlds) was lovely. Sweet standard “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” was dedicated to Les Paul, the guitar guru who popularized the song with Mary Ford in the 1950s. “Better Man” and “My Finest Champion” spoke to improving oneself and saluting one’s mentors. “Once Upon a Time in Texas” was a nimble two-handed bluegrass / cowboy workout that saw Johnson’s digits dance across the strings and up and down the guitar neck.
Some patrons must’ve been shocked when Johnson disappeared without revisiting “Cliffs of Dover” (either electric or unplugged). But perhaps his earnest encore reading of Simon and Garfunkel’s “April, Come She Will” underscored the evening’s musical message: Johnson is a multifaceted guitar magician who won’t let his appreciable talents be shoved in any one stylistic box.
It was a dazzling display of Chet Atkins-style guitar hysterics and laid-back piano revelry. Like Paul Simon, Johnson’s no one trick pony: It’d be interesting to see some of his contemporaries try and acquit themselves alone on stage for an hour with just a Martin, Takamine, or Taylor (without the benefits of distortion or wah-wah), or pull off a piano recital that’d make Prokofiev proud.