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Exclusive Stream of Eric Johnson's "Europe Live"

The Strat master offers his take on each track from his latest live album.

A lot of times these intros are something that simply happen on the spot, but this particular one was a composed chord change section for a little fanfare intro. I worked it out in rehearsals before we went out on the road. The improvised sections are totally different every night and sometimes they evolve into songs. When I started it I had plans to make it into a song, but some of the other parts didn’t seem like they were very happening, so I just turned it into an intro.

I had that riff for the chorus and then had to figure out how to build a song around it. It’s a fun one to play and there are a lot of open areas where you can just jam on it. It felt like a good song to open the night with. I wrote and recorded it for the Alien Love Child album and didn’t really plan to do it again. I’ve never recorded a studio version of it. When we decided to record our shows, we were doing it in the set and it seemed like a good fit.

On this tour I used Deluxe Reverbs instead of Twins. I used an 18-watt Fulton Webb amp and a 50-watt Marshall head through Marshall cabs. I used my normal pedalboard, but since then I’ve made a new board that’s smaller. It was just so expensive to take the big one overseas.

I grew up in Austin, so it’s a bit of a commentary. There have been a lot of changes in this town. It went from 200,000 people to 2 million over the last 20 years. The tune has kind of Stevie Wonder-inspired chord changes, like “I Was Made to Love Her.” I just love all those songs.

When I was growing up in Austin, you could hear a lot of Texas Tornados-type of stuff, and then of course the blues thing was starting out with Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and Jimmie [Vaughan]. But mainly, the beginning of the whole Austin live music thing was country-rock. Guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and Rusty Wier. They were very popular and it was a very strong musical scene. Then the jazz-fusion thing arrived and that’s where the Electromagnets came from.

“Forty Mile Town”
It was originally written about Galveston, Texas, which is about 40 miles from Houston. It’s like a really small town that’s next to a big town. And it’s on the ocean. We put it on the setlist for this tour, but I haven’t played it since. I’ll probably come back around to it at some point.

“Mr. P.C.”
My first exposure to Coltrane was probably the Lush Life record and the Giant Steps record. I’m trying to learn some standards and work through them to improve my playing. I’ve always been interested in learning more about playing jazz guitar just because you learn more about harmony. It’s an ongoing process. I never really aspired to be a legitimate jazz guitarist and have that be my scene. I’m just really curious and interested to learn more and more about it so I could put that into my thing. I picked this tune because it was a pretty straight-ahead blues and it had a really nice tempo to it. We were looking for something intense that Wayne [Salzmann, drummer] could take a solo on and it just had this fiery energy to it.

Wes Montgomery was probably my biggest influence on this tune. It has a little bit of room for improvisation—not a whole lot. No matter what style of music you’re playing, it’s important to open up and learn about harmony and how to play through different chord changes instead of just being boxed into one idiom. It’s a logical way to go, becauseyou don’t have to lose anything. There have been times where I’ve been boxed in and you just use that same alphabet to rehash what you’re trying to say. Once you start to open up, you realize there are a lot of different ways to play through chords. And there are a lot of different chords you can add to a progression. That’s when it gets exciting.

We hadn’t played that in a long time. It really isn’t much different from the original version [on Tones]. We pretty much approached the themes the same way, although the solos are different.

“Song for Life”
That was the only track from the Paris show. In fact, we didn’t record that show live, so this is a really funky board tape that we EQ’d a bit. I like the way the song turned out. You can barely hear it, but Chris [Maresh, bassist] and Wayne are playing bass and percussion in the background. It’s not a good enough recording where you can really hear it, I wish we had been recording that night, but I thought it was a nice performance so we threw it on the record. I used my signature model Martin. I’m hoping to make an acoustic record here sometime soon. I’ve already started a few tracks for it.

It’s just a comp on the Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer-type stuff. The solo is different every night, of course, but I keep the arrangement pretty tight from night to night. That tune is just a riff tune. I don’t think it’s the greatest tune in the world and I don’t know if I’m going to play it anymore. Every time I play it I get a mixed response to it, plus it’s kind of a handful. It has this funk beat that’s played way too fast and it has all these fast riffs and it’s just a jumbled-up thing. Every once in a while it comes off good, but it has a real tendency to not come off very well. We played it on a couple of the other shows on this tour and it was just horrid. It was depressing. If I’d been in the audience, I would have left.

“Last House on the Block”
The crowd loves this song. I think that’s because there’s this huge part in the middle that’s totally up for grabs. Basically, there’s seven minutes where we have no clue what’s going on and we can do whatever we want. So what happens is you play spontaneously and in the moment and people really respond to that. There’s an immediacy to it and it’s different every night.

“Cliffs of Dover”
Usually when I play “Cliffs”—which is probably every night, although I’d be happy not to play it all the time—I do a little interlude before it. I just start the song and make up some stuff before I break into it. I made the interlude a separate track in case someone wanted to go right to “Cliffs.”

It would be cool to play a tour and not have to play “Cliffs” every night. I don’t play it on the Hendrix tours that I’ve done over the years—that’s a "Cliffs"-free zone. I don’t mind playing it if people want to hear it, but I don’t feel the personal necessity to play it all the time.

I guess it all comes back to me, really. If I really, really don’t want people to request that tune, then I need to write another “Cliffs of Dover” that people like as much. It’s on my shoulders. I don’t think anyone would complain if the Beatles did “Fixing a Hole” instead of “Eleanor Rigby.” People like to hear it, so I try to include it,

It kind of psychs me out a bit. There are a couple of licks in that song that aren’t the hardest licks I play, but more often than not I screw them up in concert because I think, “Oh, this is ‘Cliffs’ and it’s what I’m known for and it has to be perfect.” I think it’s really better to just go out there and have fun playing it, and I’d probably do a lot better job of playing it. Sometimes that tune just freaks me out just because of the luggage that comes with it. But that’s probably personally induced; I could just chuck all that and go, "Whatever."

When I first wrote that tune, which was like eight years before I recorded it, it just came to me like in five minutes. I didn’t even really write it. It was literally five or ten minutes and I had that song. I have demos of me with no drums just playing guitar by myself with it. When I went in to do the Tones record, it was up for grabs to do that tune. It was voted down because the label said it sounded like a game show theme. Which is interesting, and it was good that they felt that way because the timing was right when we released it a few years later on Ah Via Musicom. It’s funny how all that happens.

Then, when that album came out, the record label I was with was never planning on putting it out as a single, but people started digging it. Also, it was weird when they actually did put it out because for probably 20 years before that the only hit song that was an instrumental was “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter. It was all this weird shot in the dark that nobody really thought could happen.

When we finished Ah Via Musicom, the mix of that song didn’t sound very good. I took it to Bernie Grundman and he mastered it. I remember I was apologizing for how that song sounded, but he dialed up some EQ and I guess however it was totally wrong was perfect for him to make it totally right. It was a weird happy accident. It was way too bassy and it had a funky mix, but Bernie made it sound really good. Maybe some things are just destined and even if you try to screw it up you find little loopholes and ways to work things out.

“Evinrude Fever”
That’s just a rock ’n’ roll jam. That’s another one where I just went back and played it start to finish because it really wasn’t even a song. I think it’s basically what I played in the studio. It just had a nice rock energy and it seemed like a good way to wrap up the record for an encore piece.

“Sun Reprise”
That was actually "When the Sun Meets the Sky." There’s an edit where the intro goes right into the ending. Inside that whole thing was the entire song, which was actually good but the microphones were screwed up on the recording and the tone was trashed. If I’d wanted to recut it, that would have required multiple parts and singing. I didn’t want to do that because my whole premise on anything I did fix was to perform it live in the studio, and it would have been too hard to do on that song. I wasn’t even going to put the song on the record, but a couple of people who heard it really dug that solo at the end. So we just turned it into a reprise and edited out the song.