Eric Johnson has long been something of a musical amalgamation. Within his guitar playing, you hear the deft picking that a Nashville classicist like Chet Atkins might give a nod to, the kind of thunderous drive that brings to mind the fusion-friendly records of Jeff Beck and suggestions of blues spirits like Stevie Ray Vaughan that emanate from the same Texas base of operations as Johnson — namely, Austin.
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Still, slip on Europe Live, a true sleeper of a summer concert recording, and you will discover Johnson doesn't really sound anything like those giants. Instead, Johnson is as inconspicuous as he is inventive. He has long shown zero interest in the hyped-up profile of the modern day guitarslinger. Instead, Johnson remains the master of his own universe, an expanse where he can play with the fluidity of a county vet, the precision of a fusion pro and the passion of a bluesman. Now, squeeze out the ego pinned to each of those personas and add together what's left. What you have is the comprehensive drive bolstering Johnson's playing. And on Europe Live, that playing has never sounded finer.
Witness, for instance, Zenland and its brief prelude, Intro. The muscle of the medley blasts off with a crackling riff that sounds like Mark Knopfler in full Money for Nothing mode. But the tune quickly tightens around a searing guitar line likely boosted by effects. It's a bold, rockish run Johnson establishes with the lean rhythm section of bassist Wayne Salzmann and drummer Chris Maresh riding shotgun. But you also don't appreciate how a clean a player Johnson is until he pulls back and assumes the role of rhythm player with a few efficient jabs that emphasize a surprising lightness to the trio. Such are the dynamics that make Europe Live a delight.
Some of the tunes are fairly recent, like the brief but beefy instrumental Fatdaddy, a romp that recalls Beck's unrelenting fusion records despite the music's initially country-esque tone. It's a serving of great trio cunning that plays at full throttle with maximum efficiency. In under three minutes, the whole wild ride is complete.
Other works, like the Grammy-winning Cliffs of Dover, are nearly 25 years old. But the way the tune coalesces out of spiraling guitar lines into a roadhouse groove sounds positively ageless.
The album's lone excess is a fairly pedestrian drum solo from Maresh that derails the otherwise engaging electric swing behind John Coltrane's Mr. P.C. Outside of that, Europe Live is an unassuming summer treat — a live album by a guitarist that has long prided himself on being a studio perfectionist. Then again, the liberating feel one senses in Johnson's playing is just one of the high points from one of the year's most complete and robust rock guitar adventures.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic