Release Date : November 11, 2008
As any Eric Johnson fan knows, a new release from the legendary Texan is cause for celebration. A guitarist known for his lush array of tones as much as for his articulate, fretboard-scaling lines, Johnson also possesses one of the most discerning ears in the business, and as his own producer chooses only the best of his material to release to the public. This uncompromising standard has applied not only to Johnson’s studio albums, but to his live video releases, as well – his famous 1988 appearance on PBS’ Austin City Limits was released on home video as recently as 2005. However, with his latest release, Anaheim, filmed for HDNet as recently as May 3 of 2006, he seems to have found a way to accelerate his editing without sacrificing audio quality.
After the mesmerizing animated menu intro, Anaheim opens with a roar of hammering Hendrix-like fuzz before Johnson kicks his band into the driving ‘Summer Jam.’ The trio of Johnson on guitar, Chris Maresh on bass and Tommy Taylor on drums sound huge from the start and the shifting, insistent groove of ‘Summer Jam’ makes for an energizing opener.
As the first song ends, they waste no time in introducing a heavily reworked cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages,’ which is recognizable only by traces of the original lyrics and vocal melodies. Johnson’s interpretation features a host of terrific chord voicings underneath the verses, and some interesting re-arrangements of the song form – including the transformation of one verse into a bridge and the addition of blazing solo sections in-between each verse. Johnson gives a strong vocal performance on this track, and Taylor’s drumming is furious and rock steady from the first kick.
Other highlights include an inspired performance of the anthemic ‘Trademark’ that features a few of Johnson’s amazing clean tones, as well as some of his more surprising playing – he uses a few chromatic approach chords throughout the song that most fans won’t be expecting, as well as a completely outside line in the solo that, whether intentionally or not, he plays with such confidence and resolves so cleanly that it simply works. Maresh’s bass tone is rich and ideal for this track, especially when he kicks in the distortion and heads over to his amp to ignite some righteous feedback.
The bubbly country western tune ‘On The Way To Love’ highlights even more sparkling Strat cleans, and the calmer guitars give Taylor room to drive the tune with the sound of his tightly tuned kit. Another pleasant surprise is the Maresh-penned rock/fusion epic ‘Rocktopus.’ Johnson’s riffs have never sounded as heavy as they do on this track, and the trio sound monstrously tight through the song’s many changes of pace as well as its groovier moments.
Anaheim also shows a very different side of Johnson than has been seen on previous concert videos – a playful side that seems to be having a terrific amount of fun on stage. This energetic stage presence is especially evident in Johnson’s rocked-out cover of The Monkees’ ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,’ where Johnson runs around, grinning, and dances over to his amp to produce feedback. Pushing his boundaries one step farther, Johnson sets down his Strat, and begins the extended intro to his iconic ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ on a Gibson SG. The lush, voice-led chords in the first few minutes of the solo sound amazing, and the novelty of seeing him play ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ on a guitar besides his Strat only becomes more fascinating as he builds anticipation for the song’s opening runs. When he finally does, his tone is searing and his performance, from the famous melody to the blistering solo, is inspiring.
The DVD isn’t without its faults, though. Though filmed in HD and presented in a widescreen ratio, the video on the disc is noticeably compressed and non-anamorphic, so on widescreen displays the picture only takes up the width of a standard 4:3 display with black bars on the sides as well as the top and bottom. This can be remedied by using the zoom feature on your monitor or DVD player, but it results in some image distortion, which is regrettable, since the concert is so nicely filmed. Fortunately, Anaheim sounds fantastic – the mix is rich and clear. Rarely do a trio take up as much sonic space as this one – with Johnson’s broad chord voicings, Maresh’s towering and sometimes aggressive tone, and Taylor’s relentlessly powerful drumming, the sound of a keyboard or a second guitar is rarely missed throughout this terrific set.
The set is also short, coming in at around 50 minutes, and while it stands up well to multiple viewings, it would have been nice to get a longer performance. To give Eric Johnson fans a little more for their money, the DVD also includes part of a nice Harmony Central interview with Johnson, and three songs shot on his Acoustic Guitar and Piano tour. Johnson proves himself to be an accomplished pianist by accompanying himself on a jazzy version of Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary,’ and running through a stripped-down version of his own ballad, the beautiful ‘Song For Lynette.’ Nestled between those two is a solo acoustic guitar performance of Johnson’s rustic ‘Song For George.’ These songs are filmed with less glamour than the well-produced main show, but that does little to detract from the intimate charm of these one-man arrangements.
Despite some technical flaws, Anaheim is well worth purchasing for fans of Eric Johnson’s eclectic music, as well as for guitar buffs eager for another opportunity to watch his incredible fingers in action. Like Austin City Limits before it, the camera work here affords the viewer plenty of opportunities to study Johnson’s unique style, though it will take many plays to absorb everything he plays. Anaheim is a great document of a vital and distinctive artist who is trying new things, and who seems to love his craft now more than ever.