Graded on a Curve: Live from Austin, TX: Eric Johnson, Widespread Panic, Guided by Voices

As the vinyl surge mounted in late 2017, there appeared three 2LPs of recordings from the television program Austin City Limits, with the wide range of the participants reinforcing the show’s multi-decade longevity. The oldest performance, by guitar wunderkind Eric Johnson, retains ties to ACL’s roots, while the sets from early this century by Widespread Panic and Guided by Voices are more representative of the municipality’s lasting rep as a live music hub. Although none of the offerings really transcend the stature of gifts to dedicated fans, each album does merit inclusion in the Live from Austin, TX series; all three are out now via New West Records.

As the longest-running music program in television history, the endurance of Austin City Limits coincides with the locale’s growth into a performance mecca, but the show’s original intention was to spotlight the city’s “mix of country, blues, folk and psychedelia” (per the FAQ on ACL’s website) through the platform of the Public Broadcasting Service rather than to document the steady flow of notable acts that made their way into town.

Thus, Eric Johnson’s inclusion in the latest batch of Live from Austin, TX releases, an endeavor that now totals fourteen entries, is quite fitting. Johnson’s aptly tagged as an Austin guy, and his album Ah Via Musicom, which placed four tracks on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart and moved well over 500,000 units since it’s 1990 release, is by far his most commercially successful outing. He’d been on the scene since the ’70s however, first surfacing as part of the Austin fusion outfit Electromagnets and then with his own eponymous band.

While Johnson is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he’s most celebrated for guitar prowess that’s landed him on the cover of Guitar Player and in the stylistic neighborhood of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani; in fact, the trio hit the road together billed as the “3G” tour. But Johnson’s early inspirations, as noted in New West’s promo blurb for this Live from Austin, TX installment, are the “3J’s,” namely Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Reed, and Jeff Beck.

Due in part to contract issues that delayed the release of debut Seven Worlds, which was recorded between ’76-’78, for roughly two decades, Johnson’s national profile was a long time coming. Tones, his ’86 album for Reprise, made little of an immediate dent, and it can be safely speculated that his December 14, 1988 performance, featuring a handful of tunes destined for Ah Via Musicom, was instrumental in Capitol signing him.

Speaking of instrumental, about half of Johnson’s setlist is delivered sans vocals, with opener “Righteous” driving home substantial technique within a bluesy framework. And while his considerable talents are established without going too overboard on flash, the cut moved me only moderately, though I’ll confess that rock-based guitar strutting connects with these ears only intermittently. Johnson does strut, but overall, the show unwinds without egregious showing off.

Furthermore, he’s savvy enough to introduce his limitations as a singer by covering “Love or Confusion,” a cut playing to his guitar strengths, and by a guy who wasn’t a powerhouse vocalist, either; Jimi’s “Are You Experienced?” concludes the set, but along the way he displays considerable breadth of influence, with “East Wes” a trib to Wes Montgomery and “Steve’s Boogie” a nod not to fellow Texan guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (that would come later, on his Venus Isle alb) but Austin pedal steel man Steve Hennig.

If Johnson largely resists becoming a braggart on his axe, the impulse is replaced by tastefulness that’s more admirable than satisfying. And I say largely resists, as there are certainly flareups of elevated adroitness and even a few extended displays, e.g. the intro to “Cliffs of Dover” (which was Ah Via Musicom’s biggest hit) and the entirety of “Zap.” Additionally, some of the songwriting, well, the non-Jerry Reed-like session picker derived stuff anyway, displays touches of pop-progginess pointing back to his fusion roots.

Altogether, Johnson’s set is of interest but not mind-blowing. Moving forward to Halloween night of 2000, the same can be said of Widespread Panic’s entry. Unlike Johnson, I’ve had more frequent contact with the persevering Athens, GA outfit since they came to national attention as part of the early ’90s HORDE Tour jam band wave, mainly because I was and continue to be friendly with folks who dig the ensemble quite a bit.

While understanding the esteem, I could frankly take ‘em or leave ‘em, and mostly left ‘em, though I do like the records they cut as Brute with fellow Athens resident Vic Chesnutt. Like any jam band worth their weight in hacky sacks, Widespread Panic’s bread and butter is as a performance unit (the live albums in their discography number in the double digits), and by 2000, they were a well-lubricated machine.

Their Live from Austin, TX volume does resonate like a show-as-party (the crowd is audibly stoked), but like some of their jam band cohorts, Panic’s attack is still quite song based; the main hinderance is that the songs, even when the delivery impresses, largely don’t grab me. There are exceptions, notably side two’s closer “Casa Del Grillo,” but the best part of their set is “Driving Song,” which is spread across side three, though it momentarily gives way to “Surprise Valley.”

This interjection is standard maneuver for bands of their ilk, the move in fact long-established by the Grateful Dead, but it got that way because it works, at least when executed well. The Dead were essentially the Grand Poobahs of the jam band scene, but Widespread Panic are more Allman Brothers-derived, and are often tagged as southern rock (it’s no surprise they were signed to Capricorn). They’re not copyists though, and spurred on by side three’s boost, the flip saves the strongest songs and playing for last. Even for this typically indifferent listener, the performance solidifies the band’s rep.

I’ll admit I’m anything but indifferent to Guided by Voices. Though not as fervently devout as some, I did attend and thoroughly enjoyed their booze-soaked, almost parodically lengthy Washington, DC show from the farewell tour that included a visit to Austin City Limits on November 9, 2004. Subsequent GBV reformations have lessened the historical import of that tour, but it surely felt like a big deal at the time, and the band delivered on all counts, both at the 9:30 Club show I attended and on this Live from Austin, TX double slab.

An argument can be made that The Electrifying Conclusion DVD renders this album redundant, but the Pollard oeuvre is so expansive that repetition is pretty much inevitable. But this is GBV’s only official live album in the discography (back to repetition, it’s also available on DVD), and bluntly, if “felt like a big deal at the time” is one yardstick by which live shows should be measured, these 30 tracks manage to communicate the night’s importance in the present without a hitch.

Early on, a typically loquacious Pollard states that GBV are advocates of fun rock. Hey, serious rock is good he says, but fun rock is better. In the ’80s, Austin City Limits was a weekly refuge for those who couldn’t abide the shittiness of commercial country music, but it was also a spotlight for “serious” players, and it would’ve been highly unlikely (I mean, nearly impossible) to have discovered GBV on the program back then (though they were extant, as the “Forever Since Breakfast” EP emerged in ’86).

Pollard would probably chafe at being called a “serious” anything, so okay; what Guided were circa 2004 was a fun rock juggernaut, and Live from Austin, TX cries it out loud and clear. Kudos to Austin City Limits for asking them to grace their stage, and for documenting it on wax.

Live from Austin, TX: Eric Johnson

Live from Austin, TX: Widespread Panic

Live from Austin, TX: Guided by Voices

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