Music News & Reviews

Eric Johnson brings his ‘most powerful guitar record’ to Lexington, live

Eric Johnson performs at Manchester Music Hall Oct. 29.
Eric Johnson performs at Manchester Music Hall Oct. 29. Invision/AP

At the close of the 1980s, Eric Johnson was a guitarist on the brink of stardom. To many in his native Texas, he was already there thanks to an assimilation of the state’s long heralded blues traditions with strong elements of fusion, country, swing and even folk. His playing wasn’t as raw or verbose as many of his contemporaries. Instead, it was equal parts technique, feel and instinct.

But a major label 1986 debut album called “Tones” didn’t fully trigger the kind of nationwide awareness Johnson or his bosses at Warner Bros. Records were hoping for.

So the guitarist hit the studio and poured over a set of new compositions with a perfectionist’s sense of detail and fervor. He emerged in early 1990 with a new label contract (via Capitol Records) and an album that would cement his sense of musical invention as well as a reputation as one of the most technically advanced instrumentalists of his generation. That the record eventually earned a Grammy kind of helped, too.

The album was “Ah Via Musicom” and this year Johnson is honoring the record’s enduring popularity with a tour that has him and the reunited band (bassist Kyle Brock and drummer Tommy Taylor) that first took the work on the road nearly three decades ago playing the record live in its entirety.

Such album tribute programs are nothing new for veteran artists, but most such shows are tied into some milestone anniversary surrounding the music at hand. Johnson’s reasons for reviving all of “Ah Via Musicom” for his 2018 concerts was far less ceremonial. It was something his fans asked him to do.

“We were just conversing with our fans on the website about what everybody would enjoy seeing as a motif for a tour,” said Johnson, who brings his ‘Ah Via Musicom’ tribute show to Manchester Music Hall on Monday. “Everybody was like, why don’t you go out and play one of your records from start to finish. Then we had a poll as to what record, and people wanted to hear ‘Ah Via Musicom.’ So it was an opportunity to put the original band back together and do that.”

Johnson said the original impetus for recording ‘Ah Via Musicom’ was to consolidate his strengths as an instrumentalist and composer. But there were commercial concerns, as well, especially since the Warners-led promotion for “Tones” had stalled.

“I had a little bit of success with the ‘Tones’ record, but we were still struggling. Things weren’t working out quite right. I really tried to not only make a better record, but maybe a more practical statement, too, I guess. It was a time when Warners wasn’t wanting to continue with us. They didn’t know what to do with me and I was fledgling a little bit. I just needed to go in and make the most powerful guitar record I could.”

Some of the tunes on “Ah Via Musicom” have been staples of Johnson’s concert repertoire ever since the album was first issued.

Among them is “Cliffs of Dover,” a shuffling blast of fusion-eque boogie that earned a 1992 Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance.

“I didn’t expect that at all,” Johnson said. “It was a complete surprise. A friend called and said, ‘Hey did you know you won a Grammy?’ I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t even go to the ceremony. I had been to it a few times before, but I didn’t even go that time. I wasn’t planning on anything happening.”

Other tunes have been absent from Johnson’s shows for years, such as the “Ah Via Musicom” album closer “East Wes.” The tune is a light but richly melodic instrumental honoring the late jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

“Wes Montgomery was one of my favorite guitarists ever, so it was kind of a homage to him. It’s not really a jazz piece, but rather a little melodic pop tune. I was just fooling around with octaves.

“I think there are certain high points in a career — moments that are really special, musically. Revisiting some of those past moments, which I typically don’t do, made me go, ‘Oh, I remember when I did that. I should put that into what I’m doing now.’ It’s almost like making a new recipe that incorporates some of those aspects from your journey that might be useful now to make the music better.”

IF YOU GO

Eric Johnson

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 29

Where: Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St.

Tickets: $30-$40

Online: manchestermusichall.com

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