There’s a perfectly good Jeff Beck living in England and still playing as well as ever, maybe more so; but it’s nice to have our own — Eric Johnson – and a Texan at that.
Inside the Swyer Theatre at The Egg on Saturday, Johnson showed off a Beck-like facility, fluency, imagination and speed, but a mastery of tones all his own, in a masterful display of guitar heroics that evoked the blues and jazz, but mostly rock.
Johnson emerged alone onstage, sat and stroked delicious high-speed melodies from a six-string acoustic: He was well warmed-up, right away. Unlike Beck, and more like Jimi Hendrix, Johnson is also a fine singer. He crooned his second acoustic song, Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will,” with soft clarity, playing more guitar than Simon ever did.
Then drummer Anton Figg and bassist Will Lee joined Johnson, both from the CBS Orchestra from “The Late Show with David Letterman.” These journeymen made sure nobody in the packed house will ever watch “The Late Show” the same way again. What a pleasure to watch these superbly skilled players stretch out, sometimes far out.
“Fat Daddy,” their first number as a trio, built from a fanfare — Lee fisting his bass and Figg playing crisp cymbal rolls — to hits like “Smoke on the Water.” In “Such Good Friends,” Figg played a second snare drum while Johnson laid on slabs of reverb for a gorgeous chiming ring. In “Gem,” Lee sang wordless notes behind Johnson’s big, anthemic chords before he took things quiet with a lovely, soft coda.
“Soundtrack Life” drove pretty hard, though Johnson introduced it as a new song; and all the pieces fit as the trio rolled over slick cadence shifts. “Manhattan” was stately, episodic blues, Lee’s accurate, active bass booming in the cracks between Johnson’s riffs.
They stayed with the blues, sort of, with Johnson introducing “Last House on the Block” as an “improvised blues rock ditty,” but it started as a tight vocal number before blasting into space via a big build. Johnson swapped his Telecaster for an SG and laid some Jerry Garcia-like licks into its complex, fast-changing groove. It was hard to count, but not hard for these masters to play.
“Mr. PC” was appropriately bebop, a John Coltrane tune in which Johnson stepped back to comp chords behind Lee, who soloed; then Lee stepped back for Figg to take over.
“Nothing Can Keep Me From You” had a fervent vocal, crunchy beat and zippy arpeggios from Johnson at his fastest. He sounded like two guitarists in “When the Sun Meets the Sky,” reverb-drenched chords chiming on the main riff and single note runs ringing out in answer.
Johnson’s long solo intro drew the crowd into “Cliffs of Dover” while camouflaging it until Figg and Lee jumped in and helped it explode.
Encores rocked big: “The Power of Love,” with Lee leading the house in hearty claps, and Johnson excelling in “The Wind Cries Mary,” emulating Hendrix’s tone and phrasing perfectly but displaying great taste in not stretching it too far.
The trio was superb throughout: Johnson low-key in his intent, stand-and-deliver concentration, Lee engagingly animated and Figg laying it down just right.
The show was part of a busy day and night of music at Empire State Plaza. Hard-rockers Coheed & Cambria played The Egg’s Hart Theater, while a free Latin music festival filled the Convention Center.