April 1st is globally known as April Fool’s Day, when practical jokes and hoaxes are played on friends, the story line behind the bluff sets up a stage for pranks and merriment. Consequently it is with brave commitment that Eric Johnson chooses this day as his release date for his latest album “Up Close – Another Look”, which features guest appearances from Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan Johnny Lang and Sonny Landreth.
EJ’s sixth studio release, within an 8 year span since 2005, comprises 12 compositions (plus one live bonus track), which were originally released in the US in 2010 and have now been given a tweak and remix. Johnson takes on many disciplines reaching out to followers of blues, country, jazz, acoustic and even some progressive elements with an overall design to take on a “live” feel. Johnson multi-tasks and delivers a song book of sounds.
Eric Johnson hails from Austin Texas and at 15 years of age had mastered the complex jazz techniques of both Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. His compatriots claim, when he is not eating or sleeping, he is continually practicing, teaching or performing and working on his techniques and tones. He has performed closely with Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Joe Satriani, and B.B King but perhaps more significantly Eric has earned inspired acclaim from the legendary Joe Bonamassa, as well as the likes of Steve Morse, Jeff Beck and even Alex Lifeson of Rush.
The opening track “Awaken” is unexpectedly “progressive” with some hint of Sitar, but just as it is warming nicely, after only one minute, we are dramatically switched in styles to blend straight into “Fatdaddy”, which is a predictable mix of rocky blues.
Johnson rapidly shifts gears again as “Brilliant Room” opens with a riff akin to a siren from a police car giving heady chase. The vocal by Malford Milligan offers hook lines which are infectiously woven into Johnson’s web: “Inside this Brilliant room, your not anywhere, all I need right now to keep me whole, rescue me, my mind starts to Linger, you’ll slip through my fingers”. Milligan’s voice offers some similarity to Paul Carrick. It isn’t always easy to make out the words in the mix but without doubt this is actually a brilliant song.
“Texas” is a live number billed by the record company as the leading track, an in-concert recording with Buddy Miles, which at six minutes disrupts the flow of the album. There is a great vocal by Steve Miller and some mean guitar by Jimmie Vaughan but the track seems out of place in the flow of the revisited studio work. After this live jam appears “Gem” featuring some stunning and high noted guitar playing, this is some of Johnson’s best work on the 2013 “Up Close”.
“Austin” which has a neat vocal part and story played out by Johnny Lang, paints a picture of the Capital of Texas, which has a huge music community revered to be one of the coolest places in USA, which just recently held its inaugural Formula One Grand Prix. No doubt about it, Austin is on the global map and with this song Johnson wants everyone to know about it. With some dazzling riffs he does this song and his city proud: “All those days down by the lake, wind streamin’ through your hair, got no reason to complicate, not a care”. All very infectious stuff that begs the listener to book a ticket and go to check it out!
Interestingly, some of the of the riffs on the six minute “Soul Surprise” have a familiar sound and feel of those by South African guitarist Trevor Rabin on a track called “Cinema” which eventually turned into Yes 90125. “Soul Surprise” is master class of building sound but there is the nagging feeling that some of these power riffs has already been laid down 20 years hence, after all, there is almost an “80’s” feel about this track.
“On the Way” is a jiggy little country dance number which rocks along innocently and leads into a sunshiny and happy number called “Arithmetic” where Johnson uses a clear vocal to great effect reminiscent of Jackson Browne. This mathematically approached song finishes with some delicious guitar licks and sound making this one of the most strongly crafted tracks on the album.
“The Sea and the Mountain” paints a magnificent mental picture of what it says on the tin, but at under two minutes is simply too short. A major direction change kicks in again with “Vortexan” which will doubtless be a live highlight and will encourage some crazy line dancing.
“A Change Has Come To Me” is another great little song where Johnson uses his voice beautifully. The opening bars are reminiscent of Hendrix but the song turns into an innocent ditty with a valuable message: “a change can come to you, and has come to me”.
The album closes with a slow ballad, “Your Book” almost like a religious Hymn, assisted on guitar by Sonny Landreth, with an interesting lyric calling on “the rapture of the chanters”.
The main detriment about this re-release was no real need to place the live six minutes of “Texas” at the fore-front of the album simply detracted from the strongest tracks which are buried in the middle of the album. The track listing could have been improved but, at the end of the day, it has to be said, when it comes to the guitar there are not many players on the planet as versatile as Eric Johnson.
At the end of the day, besides the appraisal by Joe Bonamassa that he is proud to call Eric Johnson an inspiration, there is a more fitting, down to earth, Texan approach to put things in perspective, and so to quote Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top “Damn, can that guy play”. Enough said. Eric Johnson ain’t no-one’s fool!
Rockshot Review by Tim Price March 2013