Eric Johnson lets his music flow free

Less-cautious approach in studio brings flavor of live performance




If you go

What: Eric Johnson, in concert with Steve Miller Band.

When: 7:30 p.m. July 17.

Where: Sleep Country Amphitheater, 17200 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Cost: $48.50 through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or

Information: Call 360-816-7000 or visit

For 20 years, Eric Johnson had been well served by his approach to making records, a meticulous process of recording songs instrument-by-instrument — sometimes even note by note.

It made for perfectly rendered music that is technically brilliant, has been eagerly embraced by fans, and is plenty enjoyable for the casual listener as well. But Johnson’s methods were also a major reason why his albums have often arrived five or more years apart.

With his 2005 release, “Bloom,” Johnson began to ask whether his methods needed to change.

“It’s a nice record, but it sounds a bit static,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview.

That realization brought about a new approach when Johnson went to work on his latest studio album, “Up Close.”

He decided to loosen up and not worry so much about note-for-note perfection, and brought in a few musicians to try to capture the feeling of live performance in the studio.

On the song “Austin,” Johnson got Jonny Lang to sing the vocal. On “Texas” (a song originally done in 1968 by Electric Flag), Johnson had Steve Miller handle the vocals, and also brought in former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan to create some musical conversation between the two guitarists in the song.

“Probably the most live cut on the record is ‘Texas,’” he said. “The other ones I spent a lot of time orchestrating and arranging.”

There are moments on “Up Close” where Johnson also allowed himself to be more spontaneous.

“Some of the solos were performed live, like the solo on ‘Arithmetic,’” Johnson said.

His more-relaxed approach breathes life into “Up Close,” an album that covers a wide range of moods and styles. “Brilliant Room” is a sleek rock track. “Awaken” evokes some of the jazz-fusion fireworks of Jeff Beck, while there’s a honky-tonk sound to “On the Way.” Meanwhile, the chiming instrumental “Gem” brings elegance into the mix.

Johnson said there’s room for further growth and improvement with his music, and he plans to build on the momentum of “Up Close.”

“I want to continue in this way and try to make the music better, make the songs better, but then I want to figure out a way to put in more ferocious guitar, but in a way that it doesn’t step over the song,” he said.

Chances are it will be a few years before fans get to see where Johnson’s quest takes him. For now, he has a good deal of touring on his list of priorities.

He also plans to spend time next year completing an acoustic album that he began recording about five years ago.

“I just recently came back and listened to the recordings from then,” Johnson said.

“I think there are at least three pieces from that session that I’m going to use. And then I’ve got some new songs that I’ve been writing, so I’m going to try to take that back out and finish that up.”