Eric Johnson to play Cedar Cultural Center

To capture spontaneity, guitarist Eric Johnson turned to live recording on his latest effort, “Europe Live.”

Eric Johnson plays emotional, scale sweeping solos on electric guitar.

Courtesy of Max Crace

Eric Johnson plays emotional, scale sweeping solos on electric guitar.

Joe Kellen

Guitarist Eric Johnson’s favorite thing about making music isn’t necessarily making music.

“Why I enjoy what I do is because it gives me ability to meet people and have nice visits with them,” he said. “That camaraderie is kind of extraordinary.”

To say that Johnson doesn’t love his six-string, though, would be wildly inaccurate. The acclaimed musician won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1991 for his recording of “Cliffs of Dover” on his multi-platinum selling album “Ah Via Musicom.”

He’s been touring the country since the mid-1970s, sharing stages with the likes of fellow guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Johnson has dedicated his life to composing and performing music while exploring the limits of his musical weapon of choice.

While his accomplishments are numerous, time can wear on any artist. Johnson said in recent years, he felt that he phoned in some performances.

“It’s easy to let yourself play the same licks over and over again every night,” he said. “But I want to stay open and child-like about what I do, even though I’m so familiar with it.”

This is the main reason he decided to go with a live album as his latest release, “Europe Live,” which contains 14 tracks of material from throughout Johnson’s career.

The guitarist does his best to reinvent highlights of his catalog. The song “Zap,” featured on his 1986 record “Tones,” sounds distinctly fresh from the wah pedal-singed studio version. Johnson plays with the bouncing, circular chorus of the instrumental tune with vigor and impressive technique, adding new codas with improvisations that occasionally move at neck-warping speeds.

However, the material on “Europe Live” is nothing earth-shattering, though “Evinrude Fever” possesses a rock ’n’ roll playfulness that’s difficult to frown at. It’s worth noting that Johnson does some of his most compelling work on a song that isn’t his own — his cover of John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” is genuinely surprising at moments, bending and gliding with precision. It’s also a nice step away from the focus on Johnson, giving the rest of the band an opportunity to shine.

Looking back on the material in “Europe Live,” Johnson said it’s inspiring him to consider recording his next few albums in a similar fashion.

“I think in that process of tracking and layering and polishing stuff in the studio, more often than not, you just start losing something,” Johnson said. “Everything you hear on the radio now is completely pitch corrected, and I want to capture something a little more spontaneous.”

Johnson said that perfectionism made him trip over his own feet during his career. “Venus Isle,” the follow-up to “Ah Via Musicom,” took six years for him to make. Coincidentally, Johnson’s biggest hit, “Cliffs of Dover,” took him five minutes to write.

“The big illusion I embraced was that once you found that success, you’d have it forever, no matter what you do,” Johnson said. “But those things are really like waves — you can ride those waves and sustain them to a certain point, but you have to be aware of yourself.”

Like all careers that span decades, Johnson’s has ebbed and flowed. But he’s focused on the present now, and he wants to keep it that way.

“My main goal is to communicate with people and engage them. I want to give them something they and I can enjoy,” he said. “I don’t put a lot of weight on how much success we have one day to the next. If things do well, that’s great, but it’s always fluctuating. Once I realized that, everything became a whole lot clearer.”

 

What: Eric Johnson
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Cedar Cultural Center, 416 S. Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $30–35