Located in the eclectic downtown Atlanta neighborhood of Little Five Points, the Variety Playhouse welcomed Grammy Award winner Eric Johnson to town on a stormy Sunday night. Erected in 1940, this converted World War II era movie theater is one of the more intimate and charming musical venues around town, with a posted capacity of 1,000. The main seating area has theater-style chairs, and while I have been to shows here where the front area of the stage was sold as reserved seating as well, Johnson’s concert remained as open general admission space.
With music compiled during the COVID-imposed pause to live touring, Johnson is now back out on the road supporting his most recently released set of two separate albums, The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. He returned to Atlanta with band support from Roscoe Beck (bass), Wayne Salzmann (drums), and Dave Scher (guitar/keyboards). Ironically, I attended Johnson’s final Classics: Present and Past tour date here on March 11, 2020, before touring went dark, so I welcomed the opportunity to finally catch him again.
What makes Johnson’s Treasure Tour so special is his approach to the set, which was divided into separate acoustic and electric parts. Taking the stage at approximately 8:15pm with just Beck in tow, Johnson unassumingly took his seat with acoustic in hand and started the evening off with “Resolution.” For the next 45 minutes or so, Johnson and Beck entertained the attentive crowd with a selection of a thirteen acoustic tunes, including a cover of Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will,” and “The Ballad of Elrod and Girlene,” a track Johnson joked was inspired by his desire to write a hillbilly-type song due to growing up listening to artists like Hank Williams. The entire set felt like a cozy coffeehouse performance with library-level silence expected by the audience.
Following a roughly 20-minute intermission, Johnson and crew returned to the stage and launched into “Righteous,” the immediately recognizable fan-favorite from his certified platinum 1990 release, Ah Via Musicom. Johnson’s Stratocaster guitar tone continues to be uniquely distinct and delicious, and while the 68-year-old is certainly an elder statesman now, his playing remains timeless. It is almost hard to believe that I first saw him perform as far back as 1991.
Similar in length to the acoustic set, the band performed a dozen tracks plugged in, including a cover of “Freeway Jam,” which was an amazing and emotional tribute to the late, great Jeff Beck. Following the Jimi Hendrix cover of “Little Wing” with Scher on vocals, the band rolled into “S.R.V.” from Johnson’s third studio album, Venus Isle (1996), as the build up to the main set finale. When the final chords of “S.R.V.” had faded, the stage lights did as well, leaving only Johnson highlighted as he mesmerized fans with an elongated solo that concluded with the familiar chords of his signature song, “Cliffs of Dover.” Following a standing ovation, the band exited the stage briefly, returning to wrap up the night with an encore performance of Johnson’s Grammy-nominated instrumental, “Zap.”
This initial run of Johnson’s Treasure Tour runs through this Sunday, April 2, where it will wrap up at the Aztec Theatre in San Antonio, Texas. The tour then picks up again on August 31 and will continue on through October 12, where it will conclude at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
3.) April Come She Will (Paul Simon cover)
4.) Once Upon a Time in Texas
5.) A Song for Life
6.) Song for George
7.) Song for Lynette (Johnson on piano)
9.) Sun in My Heart
10.) Tribute to Chet Atkins
12.) The Ballad of Elrod and Girlene
13.) Blackwaterside (aka Black Mountain Side – Led Zeppelin cover)
15.) Soundtrack Life
16.) Drifting (Jimi Hendrix cover)
18.) Impressions (John Coltrane cover)
20.) Freeway Jam (Jeff Beck cover)
21.) Open Road
22.) Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
24.) Cliffs of Dover
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Elliott is a music photographer covering shows in the Atlanta, Georgia and the surrounding area. The highlight of his photography career was back in the early 90s, selling Neil Diamond the rights to his negatives from a show and purchasing a set of tires for his 1979 280ZX during college with the money.