Eric Johnson and Mike Stern Live in Folsom

On Friday night (January 30th) I went to see Eric Johnson and Mike Stern at the Harris Center in Folsom, CA. Here are my thoughts on the show:

The Harris Center is a nice place to see a show. It is new and they have three stages. I thought the acoustics were great. I have heard there is not a bad seat in the house. The prices were reasonable as well.

Eric and Mike are phenomenal players. Their technique and knowledge of the instrument is amazing. At this point in their careers it must be neat to team up and have some fun. I’m sure their playing is second nature now and they can really express themselves.

Unfortunately, it was not a great show for me because of several reasons which, by themselves would not be a big deal, but added together made for an unpleasant experience.

First, the show was much more “jazz oriented” than I expected. If this was painfully obvious by who was on the bill, then shame on me for not knowing it. I know Mike Stern is a jazz guy but I thought he and Eric Johnson would bring more blues to the table. I did expect instrumental guitar all night, but it was 99% jazz. The first song went 15 minutes with guitar solos lasting over 5 minutes. Now I love a solo like the next guy, but it was just too hard to stay connected. The whole night went that way with each song lasting over 12 minutes and what seemed like the same solo over and over. They literally had a chair on the side for Mike to sit down and wait for Eric to finish his solos. Eric simply walked off the stage for some of Mike’s solos.

If you know about jazz theory, there are scales for chord changes and “outside” notes that make jazz what it is. But it seemed to be ALL outside. It was difficult to follow the chord changes. I’m sure that they did not have a problem following it in their heads but it was unlike any jazz I had ever heard.  I did not get the sense of “tension and release” that many great solos have. Now maybe there were many people in the room that were following right along, but I was not one of them. I think that some folks were just sitting and watching in awe at the great technique (and it was great technique).

I thought they might do some blues, jazz, ballad and funk type songs which are all good vehicles for soloing. But that was simply not the case. Both players did an unaccompanied solo which I enjoyed. Mike did do one ballad which was good, and they closed the show with Red House which was great (I was thinking, “Where was this all night?”). Again, maybe it is my fault for not doing my homework.

The bass player and drummer were very good and “Cliffs of Dover” was great but again, it was at the end of the show.

I am writing this to inform anyone who may have the same expectations as I did. This is a JAZZ show.

Second, from where I was sitting, I was disappointed with the tone from both players. I know that it is sometimes difficult to get a good live sound but c’mon these guys are seasoned pros.

Mike had what looked like 2 Fender Deluxe Reverb combos for his amp set up. The problem was his guitar sounded drenched in chorus/delay/reverb. I thought his tone was muddy to the point where it was difficult to hear all the notes. It cut through a little better when he occasionally added a boost.

Eric also had a pair of Deluxe Reverbs and next to that, a Marshall head with two 4×12 cabinets. I believe that he was using the Marshall for his lead tone with an A/B switch. I did like his clean tone. It seems to cut through nicely. But I thought it somewhat clashed with Mike’s tone. I know they are not in the same band and have their own “voice” but you would think they might put some consideration into this.

Eric’s lead tone, while good, was much louder than the clean tone and it was like a shock every time he used it. Maybe it was because it was a different amp and not a “boosted” signal from the same amp. Besides the volume jump, it sounded muffled. I asked the people I was sitting with what they thought and they agreed. The low end had a buzz to it.

Now maybe I was in a bad place but I bought seats right behind the sound board for a reason. That should be the best place to hear a good mix. It wasn’t my first concert. Again, I know it is difficult to get a good live sound and they depend on others to adjust the mix but that didn’t make it any easier on my ears.

Here is a clip from a seat closer to the stage so you can decide for yourself (of course this was recorded on a cell phone):

 

Lastly, and I admit this is nitpicking, Eric did not engage the audience and was bent over most of the time. When I say bent over, I mean he had his head leaning over the neck of his guitar looking at the fretboard like a vulture when playing his solos. I thought he may fall forward at some point. I did not know he plays like that on stage. My neck hurt just watching it. Sometimes he would retreat in a stumbling “moonwalk” tippy-toe kinda way.  Now you may say “He’s a great player and it’s not his job to keep you interested”. Well, it kinda is. That’s entertainment. Now of course I don’t have to go to the show. But to me, the best part of playing on stage is the interaction with the audience. I felt like we were peeking in on his studio practice. Maybe that’s what it takes to play such difficult music but I have seen MANY guitarists and no one ever played like that on stage. Mike Stern was stepping to the front of the stage on his solos, looking at the crowd, like one would expect. Maybe Eric is shy. I don’t know.

Again, I will say that any one of these things alone would not have tainted my experience, but all of them together made it a mediocre show. It seems too late for me to try and say anything nice but here goes. Please believe me; I am not trying to trash these two players. I have studied Mike Stern’s picking technique and I have one of Eric’s instructional videos. I know they have been very good for a long time. I was excited to go see these guys play.  What I am saying is that I did not have a good time at the show. I have been to over 250 concerts (many of them jazz artists) and most of them were really good. This was not one of them.

It would be great to hear from someone else who was at this show or has seen this tour. Please comment.  If you like eclectic/avant garde type jazz, I think you would enjoy this show. If you like more traditional jazz and blues, you may come away feeling as I did.

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