South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Johnson reflects on pandemic, 2023 tour

Eric Johnson will stop in STL on March 9 during tour
Photo by Max Crace

What does one do when an unprecedented global pandemic strikes? Worry, read, binge-watch Netflix and work on hobbies were some of the options many people chose.

For guitarist Eric Johnson, it was about digging out unreleased archival recordings and pulling together a project whose foundation was heretofore overlooked material. The result was a pair of albums he released last year —“The Book of Making” and “Yesterday Meets Today.”

With the last two or three weeks of touring snuffed out in the beginning of 2020 when the lockdown kicked in, Johnson went home to Texas with plenty of time on his hands and not much to do.

“I have a recording studio and I have a tape closet with tons of finished and unfinished stuff I never released,” Johnson said in a late-January phone interview. “Because musicians weren’t really getting together, I just started pulling material out of the closet and I started to find all these unfinished cuts. I just decided to start trying to listen and see if I could find anything that was interesting and worth finishing. I started finding stuff that I’d forgotten about. Kelly Donnelly, my engineer who works at the studio, set me up where I could kind of record myself. I just started overdubbing on tapes and messing with it. About 10 or 12 songs are old ones I overdubbed on, fixed up, and toward the end of the period, I started going with musicians and cutting new tunes, so there are a number of new songs on the double record. About 65 percent of it is the older stuff that I never finished.”

Johnson spent a year and a half cobbling together these songs, as well as seven leftover cuts that he turned into “Takeouts,” a digital-only EP available through a QR code fans can download after purchasing physical copies of “The Book of Making” and “Yesterday Meets Today.”

The 18 songs that make up the two albums range from the mid-tempo ballad “My Faith in You,” where Johnson’s gentle vocals are juxtaposed by his nimble, but never excessive soloing, to the light vibe of “To Be Alive,” which finds guest vocalist Arielle’s phrasing carried along by subtle piano and guitar accompaniment. Elsewhere, goodies range from the Larry Carlton-flavored title cut to a crisp reading of the blues standard “Sitting On Top of the World” that has just enough grit and is one of those nuggets that has periodically popped up in Johnson’s live sets over the years.

Also included is “Another One Like You,” co-written with Christopher Cross, for whom Johnson was once a sideman and whose friendship dates back to when the duo were teenagers and met at a legendary concert Deep Purple was playing at San Antonio’s Jam Factory. What would have otherwise been a standard gig was more surreal given the fact that a 16-year-old Johnson’s band, Mariani, was opening for the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and Cross wound up subbing for Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who was ailing to the point of being briefly hospitalized.

“Ritchie was in the hospital and he couldn’t play,” Johnson said. “The promoter of the show had an assistant named Christopher Cross who helped him do all the shows and that was kind of his gig when he wasn’t playing music. Chris was such a huge Deep Purple fan that they said they’d do the show and hired Chris and he came onstage and played Ritchie Blackmore’s parts.

“Chris was 17 or 18 and back in those days, he was a real rocker—long hair, a Flying V and a Marshall (stack),” Johnson said. “He was totally different than his music got later. I met Chris that night when he came up and asked if I minded if he could use my amp because he didn’t have one there. We became friends that night.”

Johnson’s creative path went from ‘70s sideman to the likes of Carole King and Cat Stevens to launching his solo career in the ‘80s with his 1986 major label debut, “Tones,” and his 1990 Grammy Award-winning follow-up, “Ah Via Musicom,” whose centerpiece was the hit instrumental “Cliffs of Dover.”

And while that may have been the Texan’s greatest commercial success, he is deservedly entrenched with the guitar-playing set. His instrumental prowess has found him touring as part of the South American leg of G3 with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci, being part of the 2014 Experience Hendrix Tour and hitting the road with fellow guitarist Mike Stern on the duo’s Eclectic Guitar Tour that same year.

When the pandemic hit, Johnson was in the middle of supporting “EJ Vol. II,” an all-acoustic project. With this current tour, he intends to dust those songs off thanks to the unique approach he’ll be taking on stage.

“We’re going to do something a little different this time and (we’re) playing two sets,” he said. “I’ve done solo acoustic tours before but this time, our first set is going to be acoustic with the whole band. We’ll do a full acoustic set and then we’ll come back and do a full electric set. I’ll be incorporating some of “EJ Vol. II” into that first set.”

Always looking to scratch his creative itch, Johnson has plenty packed into 2023, including playing a show in St. Louis Thursday, March 9 at The Pageant. Tickets start at $40.

In addition to plenty of touring, Johnson will teach a number of master classes and plans to work on a still-unnamed blues-rock project he describes as, “…just a straight-up playing kind of thing.” As he’s done throughout his career, Johnson intends to keep following the advice the late B.B. King gave him. 

“I’m going to keep finding that flair of music that I have a passion for and a unique voice for in the world and that nobody can do like me,” Johnson said. “And I’m going to continue to try to grow that and let that be my focal point.”

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