Blues is very much its own thing; existing with rare exceptions almost wholly outside the pop mainstream, this uniquely American musical form has dedicated practitioners and ardent adherents. What that means in practical terms is that an artist can be a giant in the (current-day) blues world and essentially unknown outside of it.
That’s the case with Eric Johanson. A guitarist in the tradition of Freddie King, Johanson has landed four of his album on Billboard’s blues chart. But ask anyone who doesn’t keep up with the blues about him, and you’re likely to get a blank stare and/or a shrug.
He deserves better. From the crushing opening chords of “Don’t Hold Back,” the lead-off track on The Deep and the Dirty, it’s clear that this Louisiana-born guitarist had drank form the waters of Steve Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and other crossover artists. Steeped in the blues for sure, Johanson has a rock sensibility. Sure, “Don’t Hold Back” features a central riff that’s more than a bit reminiscent of “Voodoo Chile,” but his lead work isn’t Hendrixian at all. And the thunderous vibe – courtesy of rhythm section Eric Vogel (bass) and Terrence Higgins on drums plus Jesse Dayton’s superb production – channels that rock ethos, delivering it inside of the blues idiom.
The term power trio was coined to describe ensembles like the one featured on The Deep and the Dirty. Johanson’s singing is clear and strong, and while his lower-register work is sturdy, it’s when he reaches a bit higher than he finds his true voice; the title track illustrates that quality. He sounds a bit like Paul Rodgers. But when he shuts up and plays his guitar (so to speak), that’s when the record truly catches fire.
Johanson and his associates explore the various corners of the blues. “Beyond the Sky” leans in an acoustic direction. But it’s still fundamentally electric, and uber-heavy. He can swing (“Undertow”) and he’s surprisingly comfortable leaning in a kind of Southern rock singer-songwriter mold (“Just Like New”). The songs keep coming: from the slow burn of “Elysian Fields” to the field stomp of Familiar Sound” to the rifftastic rocking “Galaxy Girl” (with shade of Jimi’s reading of “Come On, Pt. 1”) each of the twelve tracks deliver on the promise of the album’s title.
If there’s any misstep on this record – and really there isn’t – it’s that one or two songs sound a bit like others. “Stepping Stone” (not the Boyce/Hart classic) is a solid rocker, but it feels ever so slightly redundant sharing space on an album with “Don’t Hold Back.” But there’s a commendable overall variety to the tunes and arrangements.
Blues can be a lot of things. If exciting is one of the things you like it to be, make The Deep and the Dirty your next stop.