You can imagine my excitement when I heard the good news. “You’ve been approved for Eric Johnson!” This was followed by my little NFL touchdown dance of sorts. I’ve been an Eric Johnson fan for quite some time. Cliffs of Dover just speaks to me.
We arrived a few minutes before doors opened, to see Eric Johnson – Jan 17 on the marquee. This was actually to be a dual show, Eric Johnson and Mike Stern. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Stern, he’s an American jazz guitarist, who’s played with the likes of Miles Davis and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and is widely hailed as one of the best around. Truth be told, I had never been a big Stern fan, but I was still excited to see what was to come!
I got my photo pass with no drama, as is always the case at Granada Theater, and went upstairs to set up my gear. As you’d imagine, the crowd was of a bit more mature in nature, so most had seats for this show. This left, much to my delight, the pit in front of the stage fairly open (much easier to move around to get ‘the shot’).
Then, the band took the stage. Mike Stern was first on the scene, with cheers and waves from the fans. Eric strolled up after him; there was much rejoicing, followed by bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Anton Fig (some of you may recognize him from David Letterman’s house band as well as his years with Ace Frehley).
From the first note, (or should I say notes, as they all blend so seamlessly together) I was taken aback. I know these guys can play. I mean, really play. But until you see it, it’s difficult to get the full effect of what they’re doing. Their fingers flow so blazingly fast, yet so light on the neck, it’s absolutely stunning.
They kicked off their set with “Out of the Blue.” Shooting these guys is a dream for a photographer. Standard concert protocol is “First 3 no flash”. Meaning we can only stay for the first 3 songs, then we have to leave. We’re used to working quick to get our shots. But that was completely unnecessary that night! According to my internal clock, I expected to be asked to leave at the end of the first song! But to my relief, I had 2 more songs left in the pit! Woohoo!
“Manhattan” was next, followed by “Benny’s Blues.” Since I already got the shots I needed during the first song, I was free to step back and enjoy the show, hopping up to the front to grab a frame of some great interaction or expression. That was one of the things I most enjoyed about this show. The way Eric and Mike feed off each other.
Johnson would do something impossible on the guitar, and Stern would visibly flinch, laugh out loud and applaud. On the mirror, Stern would pull off some incredible feat, and, Johnson would smile and bob his head. Throughout the show they would trade off solos, all the way around the band, thus giving everyone proper time in the spotlight. And then my 3 songs were up. I had to put the camera away. So I went back up to my seat with my family, got myself a beer, and sat back as a fan.
I’ve been trying to find something that I could say “It sounded like this…” but any Eric Johnson fan will know, he just has a sound all his own. And tonight was no exception. “Wishing Well” was the next song up. This one really highlighted Stern’s voice. It was a slower-jazzy number and was very smooth. “Wherever You Go” was next followed by “Dry Ice.”
This one was pretty cool and a bit more rocking, urging you to bob your head or tap your feet. After grooving to this one for a few minutes Eric broke into the melody for BLACK SABBATH’S “Iron Man,” which got the whole venue laughing. Then the whole band came back in and walloped you right in the chest with a super full sound. “Austin” was the next song on the docket. You forget that Eric Johnson can sing, as most of the time he’s wringing impossible sounds of the guitar, but he actually has a really nice voice. This song also had a pretty cool, classic bass line, walking through the scales.
As amazing as these guys are, it seemed they spent just a little too much time proving it, sort of reminding me of Joe Satriani a little. I think the total note count hit somewhere in the 3 to 4 billion range.
Though I have to say, when not squeezing scales out of the section of the fret board my fingers don’t even fit in (albeit bloody impressive), Mike Stern has some really nice music sensibilities. So does Johnson, of course. Then it was done. They bowed. Crowd cheered. House lights stayed off. Stage lights stayed on. And Eric reappeared to play. Taking the scenic route he worked his way into “Cliffs of Dover.” I was ecstatic! The whole band came back and did a really interesting version of a song I like so much. They finished the night with “Red House” and then it really was over.
Thanks for a great night, guys! I’m so glad I had the opportunity.
LIVE REVIEW AND PHOTOS: RYAN “C.B.” WHITEHEAD/ARDENT OWL MEDIA