For those of you lucky enough to have taped the original airing on PBS back in 1988, you should be pleased to know that Eric Johnson‘s complete Austin City Limits performance has finally been released on DVD. If you really hurry, you just may find some unsuspecting fan on EBAY still willing to shell out a few bucks for that worn out VHS tape. I love it when a classic performance like this finally gets to see the light of day. I mean, I guess an Eagles concert video coming 25 years too late, or a 61 year old Paul McCartney breaking out a few Beatles songs in Red Square is better than nothing, but I’d personally find some Hotel California tour footage or a remastered Rockshow DVD slightly more satisfying? It just figures that all these bands are now releasing concert DVDs at a near CD pace, now that most of the new bands suck. Except for the ones I like of course.
Decked out in his finest Sgt. Peppers jacket, and sporting a trendy Flock of Seagulls hairdo, Johnson, backed by the ace rhythm section of Kyle Brock (bass) and Tommy Taylor (drums), performed this stunning sixty minute set in his hometown of Austin, Texas on December 14th, 1988. Don’t let the silly get up fool you because this guy’s guitar playing is anything but silly. Like his fellow Texas-born guitar slingers Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Johnny Winter, Johnson was primarily inspired by the blues, but he went on to create a signature sound based on his unique guitar tone and a fluid combination of rock, blues, and jazz elements. Just like with Jeff Beck or Eddie Van Halen, you can tell it’s Johnson playing after only a few notes from his guitar.
Although the term often gets thrown around too loosely, Eric Johnson is truly a guitarist’s guitarist. Possessing the speed and precision of a Yngwie Malmsteen and the finesse of a Larry Carlton, you will often hear some of the worlds greatest guitar legends marvel at his warm tone and amazing chops. Johnson can also be a frustrating perfectionist who has only released three new studio albums since his excellent solo debut Tones in 1986. That’s about one album every six years – and he’s only getting worse. There was nine, count’em (9), years between Venus Isle and this year’s Bloom. Who does he think he is Axle Frickin’ Rose? I’m just glad I’m not THAT into him or I’d be really pissed. Johnson‘s only other live concert footage to be officially released are the few songs that you get on the first G3 video, and his performance of "Desert Rose" on the Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this setlist include no less than five songs from Ah Via Musicom, an album that was still over a year away from being released at the time of this performance. Even more surprising was his performance of "Camel’s Night Out", a song that would not appear again until 1996, when it became one of the standout tracks on Johnson’s third album Venus Isle. His love of Jimi Hendrix is also made obvious by the two phenomenal covers of "Love Or Confusion" and "Are You Experienced?" – songs only the most devoted fan and skilled guitarist would dare to perform. He also threw out a previously (and still) unreleased surprise called "Western Flyer", an intense rocker that would have sounded right at place alongside "Purple Haze" on Are You Experienced?
Fans will get their money’s worth just from seeing Johnson‘s dazzling performance of the epic "Cliffs of Dover". This song is arguably one of the finest guitar songs ever written, certainly post-1980, and Johnson almost makes it look simple. He begins the song with a gentle, melodic prelude before launching into the famous opening riff that won him a big fat Grammy. Those unfamiliar with Johnson‘s playing will notice his unique guitar tone, which sounds like a combination of generous amounts of chorus, delay, echo, reverb, and a touch of distortion. This gives his guitar an almost violin-like quality at times. I would personally love to hear him play something with a cleaner, more raw, tone and just let her rip – a la Vaughan and Hendrix.
The production quality of his disk is outstanding, considering that it comes from nearly 20 year old source material. Along with a great PCM stereo audio mix, you get a booming DTS surround track that accentuates every drum beat and cymbal crash, and fills your subwoofer with penetratingly deep bass. I would have preferred to hear Johnson‘s guitar mixed more prominently, but, then again, I always say that. The video was your standard TV show quality, which means it was good but not great. There were only about three or four different camera angles used during filming, but they were all good ones. Most importantly, there was plenty of close-ups given of Johnson‘s fretwork for us guitar freaks to marvel at. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no extras included on this DVD.
Eric Johnson fans, and guitar fans in general, should not hesitate to pick up this superb DVD. It just may be the only thing he gives you for the next 12 years – if he stays at his current pace.
Love Or Confusion
Trail Of Tears
Camel’s Night Out
Cliffs of Dover
Are You Experienced?
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