Guitarist Eric Johnson’s career has always been somewhat interesting. Regarded as one of the finest guitarists of his era, he’s been making music since the mid 70s, yet his recorded studio output is relatively small; thus, his reputation has been built on his live performance and the high quality of his limited studio output. The latest in the reissue series of Austin City Limits finds him in performance in 1988 as a young man clearly on the ascendency. He completed his first solo album, Seven Worlds, in 1978, but it went unreleased.
Though it took him eight years to record the follow-up to his debut album, 1986’s Tones would be his debut proper—within that time, he’d become known as a top live performer and session man. Critical acclaim was one thing, but commercial success eluded him; his second album was mainly a regional success, and in spite of a Grammy nomination for the song “Zap,” he soon found himself again without a label. Thus, this performance finds Johnson at an odd point of his career. A veteran musician with over a decade’s worth of experience, a poor-selling but critically acclaimed solo album that was released two long years prior, and no record label interest. So what does a good musician do when the chips are down?
He plays live.
And boy, does he play.
With his trio of Kyle Brock on bass and Tommy Taylor on drums, he runs through thirteen songs of scorching intensity, from the Texas boogie of “Righteous” and “Steve’s Boogie,” to the transcendent, mellow rock of “Trail of Tears” and “East Wes,” Johnson’s guitar prowess never fails to impress. The highlight, of course, is “Cliffs of Dover,” which would become a surprise commercial hit two years later. Even though it was yet to be commercially released, it’s already a potent number, a signature tune for him that surpassed the greatness of what was his signature number of the era, “Zap.”
Commercial recognition was coming for Johnson, and this set shows that in spite of the business hassles and frustrations he might have had during that era, it didn’t stop him from becoming a crack live act. This show captures a musical legend in his ascendency, and is a testament to the power of perseverance.
Eric Johnson: Live From Austin TX is available now from New West.
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