No More Big-Haired Operatics

Trolling for whatevers next with Eric Johnson

Photo by Max CraceThere's just no way poppy rock guitarist Eric Johnson can be as miserable as he says he is. But who am I to contradict him?

"I think a lot of the original ideas I have aren't [pop], but they get funneled into this pop concept at some point," lamented the 49-year-old, who's perhaps best known for his '90s classic rock instrumental staple "Cliffs of Dover," which earned him a Grammy.

"I think I got hung up, especially in pop music, more than other styles of music. That it's all about putting on an image and a show. The priorities are really inverted," he says. "All these years, I've just assumed. I've never questioned that. Now, I'm thinking maybe there's other ways to do this."

There are other ways—like unplugging his guitar, which Johnson does every five years or so. He'll be playing a solo acoustic show tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana—during which he'll also set down his Martin signature model for four or five songs to get all Billy Joel on your ass, and plink away on a strategically placed piano.

"It's an experiment for me, trying it and seeing where it goes," Johnson says. "Seeing what might be more natural and honest about who I am."

Honesty could be the best policy; going acoustic and historic won fingerpicker Dave Alvin a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for his Public Domain disc a few years back. And Johnson says he's noticed something lacking in his musical life of late.

"What would be missing, to me, is just to become a better musician in terms of what kinds of songs you write and how you play them, to where you have a bigger musical experience," he says. "If I'm up there and it's a three-piece band playing for two hours, and 80 percent of it is just me soloing, it's just not big enough."

What he wants to do isn't big-hair operatic stuff like he turned in on his 1990 disc, Ah Via Musicom, Johnson finally says. He wants to get away from ProTools—the computer software that makes recorded music sound perfectly clean and shiny, for better or for worse—which is good news both for ticketholders and for those who still buy CDs.

If Johnson winds up recording live with no overdubs, like the 1940s big bands he idolizes, maybe he'll sleep as easy as an insomniac subjected to "Cliffs of Dover"—like a baby.

"If you were to time-travel back to the '40s, there was no [sophisticated production]. You picked up your instrument and performed, it was captured, and that's it," Johnson says. "I think I've gotten a little far away from that."

Eric Johnson performs with Tony Furtado at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Thurs., Jan. 15, 8 p.m. $27.50. All ages.
 
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