Austin guitarist Eric Johnson has maintained his virtuosity throughout a 40-year career, but found himself learning something new from a trip to his past.
Johnson, one of Musician magazine’s Top 100 guitarists of the 20th century, decided to revisit the 1990 album that put him on a national stage, “Ah Via Musicom,” for a revival tour two years ago. Although hits from that album like “Trademark,” “Righteous” and the Grammy Award-winning “Cliffs of Dover” have been a regular part of his concerts ever since, the 65-year-old Johnson found studying that album again had some fresh insights.
While his considerable musicianship had grown over the years, hearing his play on a nearly 30-year-old album that pushed the envelope with its searing solo lines and challenging chords reminded him of some things he’d unintentionally put aside.
“I had never done all the songs together (in concert) . . . Listening to it, you see how you let go of other things you knew,” he said in a phone interview from his Austin home. “I kind of had to re-learn some of the songs.”
For Waco fans who remember “Ah Via Musicom,” the second half of Johnson’s Thursday night show at The Backyard offers a rare chance to hear the album performed live, in sequence and with the original musicians who backed Johnson, drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock.
“It’s the original band . . . and they sound great,” he said.
The show’s first half features more of the musical mix that Johnson’s fans have heard live: hits from his albums, covers filtered through Johnson’s fingers and interpretation, and some new originals.
Thursday’s show nearly winds up Johnson’s “Ah Via Musicom” tour — the finale comes Friday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — with the guitarist beginning a fall run of his Experience Hendrix Tour, which celebrates Jimi Hendrix, the masterful rock guitarist of the 1960s and ’70s.
Johnson says rock guitarists don’t command the attention they did early in his career, when his ability was opening doors for collaborations with Eric Clapton, Steve Vai, Chet Atkins and Joe Satriani, the latter with whom he still plays.
“I think the novelty and newness of rock guitar has worn off a bit. It’s not going to have the same reaction that it did,” he said. “It’s up to musicians to have something new for listeners.”
That’s what Johnson has done in his career, working in jazz, pop, blues and country flavors on both acoustic and electric guitar, while composing on piano. He’s released 10 albums, the latest being 2017’s “Collage,” a blend of songs by such artists as Stevie Wonder, B.B. King and the Beatles with Johnson’s originals.
Though Johnson often became known for the long periods between his recordings, he’s got a new album in the works only two years from “Collage.” It started off with Johnson on acoustic guitar with percussion and he was thinking he might have a “EJ, Vol. 2” in the making. Then he added electric guitar to a song, more instrumentation on others and found himself ending up in a different place and one predominantly blues-rock in style.
“It’s more of a song record and a little different than most of my other records,” he said. “It’s not so much crazy guitar.”