Eric Johnson, ‘Book of Making,’ ‘Yesterday Meets Today’: Review

Because Eric Johnson is so quiet and unassuming – except when a guitar is slung over his shoulder – it’s easy to forget just how bona fide great he is. So this double helping of welcome reminder is certainly in order.

The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today are twin testimony of what the Texas guitar master did during his time in the pandemic. Weighing in at nine songs each, they’re decidedly different but easy to take in together as a 67-minute piece of work, each illustrating Johnson’s nimble playing skill and diverse musical orientations, gliding easily from blues (he is from Texas, after all) to jazzy fusion, pop and even touches of prog. But while there’s an abundance of blazing licks there are also melodies for miles – both played and sung – and while nothing here may have the definitive impact of “Cliffs of Dover” (as if anything can), it’s the kind of package that could be handed to any neophyte as a primer for what makes Johnson such a heavyweight.

The 18 tracks, according to Johnson, are mostly the result of some archive-digging during the lockdowns, when he was unable to tour. They span 25 years and were in various degrees of completion, and it’s clear from listening to both albums that Johnson was only too happy to be making music during that difficult time, bringing each song to the point we hear them now, blending technical precision with smooth arrangements and sonic production that’s polished but retains some grit as well. Their differences are pronounced but complementary. Yesterday Meets Today has more of a raw, odds-and-sods feel, with fewer vocal tracks and some short instrumental pieces whose finished versions feel like they’re not too removed from their initial sketches. But it’s a nice companion to the more clearly conceived The Book of Making, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any real missteps between the two.

“Soundtrack Live” opens The Book of Making with Johnson’s trademark light-touch licks, lyrical and melodic as they dance over a poppy groove and build to a soaring finish. From there it’s one highlight after another, with multitracked and intricate guitar interplay on display through tracks such as “Floating Through This World” and “Just to Be With You,” and some particularly hot soloing on “Bigger Than My Life” and “My Faith in You.” Fellow singer-guitarist Arielle is the lyrically positive project’s only guest, singing “To Be Alive,” while “A Thousand Miles” closes The Book of Making with Johnson vocalizing scat-lite over a vibey backdrop drenched with guitar tones.

Yesterday Meets Today has a bit more going on in terms of range, starting with the biting and fast-paced blues-rock of “Move on Over,” while the title track puts Johnson in yacht-rock docksiders, and a rendition of the blues staple “Sitting on Top of the World” lets him slow things down a notch, with more hot soloing. A pair of sub-two-minute tracks, the hot-wired “Maha” and the elegiac “Until We Meet Again,” are intriguing in their brevity, but it’s “Dorsey Takes a Day Off” that may be the best of the two-album bunch, kicking off with a ferocious attack and weaving two different guitar patterns through the track’s blues-prog synthesis. Releasing two albums at once is a challenging feat, and it’s rare when both are successful. But The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today allow Johnson to cover a great deal of stylistic ground and make an even broader expression of the same statement. And as he signs off of the latter with “Until We Meet Again,” we certainly hope it won’t take too long for that to happen.

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