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Volume 71, Issue 6, Monday, August 29, 2005

Life & Arts

Johnson's performance matches prestige

Texas guitarist paired with equally renowned Belew

By Ben Hill
The Daily Cougar

Houston music fans were treated to a special show Thursday night courtesy of Eric Johnson, one of Texas' favorite guitar-playing sons. Touring in support of his new album, Bloom, Johnson managed to fill two-thirds of the Verizon Wireless Theater, delivering his supercharged brand of instrumental rock with a performance that was both intimate and anthemic. 

Johnson first came to prominence as a member of the Austin-based fusion band Electromagnets, who were probably one of the chief reasons why the "Keep Austin Weird" bumper sticker exists. At 18, he was astounding audiences at Austin venues like Armadillo World Headquarters with his flashy, yet surprisingly mature guitar work, even garnering praise from the notoriously critical Frank Zappa. 

Johnson began work on a solo career when fusion fell out of style and Electromagnets broke up, releasing his debut album Tones to critical praise but limited public attention. It was his second album Ah Via Musicom and the ecstatic instrumental "Cliffs of Dover" that brought Johnson the success he had worked so diligently for. However, when "Cliffs Of Dover" cracked the charts at the end of the 1980s, melodic instrumental rock, along with pop metal in general, was about to be torpedoed by the grunge movement, effectively ending Johnson's brief stay in the public eye. Yet he soldiered on, making music that was pristine in quality and as close to perfect in execution as any human could hope to attain.

Playing a set that consisted of crowd favorites, a few surprises and tracks from Bloom, Johnson traversed a wide range of musical styles, including his trademark blend of interstellar boogie rock, Texas blues, jazz and country. Highlights were many, especially the extended buildup to "Cliffs of Dover," during which bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Tommy Taylor slowly slipped off the stage. Johnson simply cut loose on his own, summoning an array of sounds from his guitar, including bell, violin-like tones and string bending that mimicked the Japanese koto.

A piece unto itself, the buildup flowed from dreamy, euphoric lines to intense shredding reminiscent of Hendrix, all done while Johnson teased the audience with slight variations on the songs main theme.

Other standouts were "SRV," a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn; "40-Mile Town," which translated excellently to the stage; and a rocked-up version of the normally subdued "Desert Rose." He also graced the audience with three two-song encores that included Maresh's "Last House On The Block" and a lively rendering of the Beatles' "Drive My Car." 

Johnson introduced many of his new songs from Bloom to enthusiastic applause. Mostly an instrumental affair, Bloom is Johnson's strongest offering since 1996's Venus Isle, filled with more of his incredible fretboard fireworks and sunny pop songs. Many of the tracks are short and sweet, such as "Summer Jam," an excellent cover of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" and the rollicking country-jazz of "Tribute to Jerry Reid."

In short, Johnson played a concert that, if recorded, could easily become the definitive live album of a career characterized by the pursuit of perfection. 

Rarely is the opening act as well known, if not more so, than the headliner, but such was the case with King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, who is touring with Johnson in support of his new Side One and Side Two albums. Belew is considered one of the great hired guns of the art-rock scene, lending his experimental guitar work to albums by Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and fronting prog-rock masters King Crimson. 

Playing selections from his solo work including "Big Electric Cat" and the exotic, Indian-influenced "Of Bow And Drum," Belew danced around the stage, grinning mischievously as he sang, played and occasionally fell to his knees to manipulate his elaborate effects setup. His all-too-brief set was an exercise in chaotic, almost abusive experimental noise-pop, and the crowd loved it. 

Belew finished up with abbreviated but rousing versions of "Frame by Frame" and "Thela Hun Ginjeet" from King Crimson's 1981 album Discipline.

Eric Johnson

@ Verizon Wireless Theater

Verdict: Did anyone bring a tape recorder?

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