Probably the most dazzling aspect of Eric Johnson’s solo acoustic performance at last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was its overall lack of flash. An Austin, Tx. guitar giant known largely for blissed out, psychedelic departures from conventional Lone Star blues rock, Johnson focused largely on the unplugged material from his new “EJ” album. That meant finding a more compositional center to his song structure and a more fluid, streamlined guitar sound.
It also involved more folkish construction. Early Simon & Garfunkel proved a heavy inspiration. The duo’s work was addressed directly during a set opening cover of “Mrs. Robinson” that deconstructed the tune’s melody to the point that only fragments of the chorus were recognizable through all the harmonic mischief. Less obvious was the unrecorded original “Divanae” which was bolstered by shades of ‘60s-era British folk along with the stateliness of Paul Simon’s phrasing from the same period. “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” however, was likely more in line with what guitar aficionados in the crowd were anticipating. Despite an overall summery stride, the tune explored deeper percussive flourishes and greater tension within the composition’s artful but lyrical turns.
But this was by no means Johnson’s show exclusively. Also on the bill was the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet, a string band boasting an appealing infatuation with the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt – especially his Quintette du Hot Club de France-era music with Stephane Grappelli. That group was largely the model for an ensemble giddiness piloted as much by Houston/Austin violinist Leah Zeger as by Buenos Aires-born guitarist Bergara. While much of the set also covered material by The New Hot Club of America, a larger ensemble that includes Bergara and Zeger, several quartet-recorded works yielded the group’s most dramatic moments. Among the highlights: the mash-up of styles, tempo and harmony within “Nightmare No. 2” and the joyous Django drive and pizzicato playfulness of “December.”
Finally, there was an interlude by 16 year old guitar Emma Moseley, another Austin-ite, who offered instrumental variations within a Stevie Wonder medley (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Superstition”) that were full of astonishing (and simultaneous) displays of rhythm and lead melodies. Mosley also tackled Tommy Emmanuel’s “Antonella’s Birthday,” revealing a level of dynamics, inward confidence and overall artistic maturity that proved remarkable for an artist so young.