When an irresistible musical force like blues wunderkind Derek Trucks meets an immovable rock object like Eric Johnson, sparks are bound to fly.
Monday night at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, the two guitar-meisters tossed down the proverbial gauntlet with an audience of nearly 1,000 fans ready to judge the face-off.
Just ask Johnson, the Texan who's been named Best Overall Guitarist four years running by Guitar Player, who his major influences have been and I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that Eric Clapton and that "Kiss the Sky" guy Jimi Hendrix would top his list.
The self-effacing Trucks' roll call, on the other hand, would probably include jazz legends Monk, Miles and Coltrane and, of course, his uncle Butch Trucks' band, the Allman Brothers.
So, who won the shoot-out?
It was a Mexican standoff. Trucks snagged the funk-a-philes and jazz and blues enthusiasts with emotionally intense music that relied upon taste and restraint.
Johnson and his Alien Love Child power trio resurrected a page from Cream's "Live at the Filmore" album. One extended jam, "Last House on the Right," lasted more than 13 minutes. While Johnson and bassist Chris Maresh stood toe-to-toe pounding out mega-watt riffs, computerized lights raked the audience's eyes.
Even ballads like "40 Mile Town" labored under the riff-heavy guitar playing. Johnson's playing was reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen's without the sonic abandonment.
Over on the other side of the stage was the bluesy, jazz and funk sound of Trucks. His five-man group played with an integrity that made the music flow, breathe and excite. Whether romping and stomping through organ patriarch Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack" or providing a resilient beat for vocalist/percussionist Javier Colon's creamy singing, the group's playing was the epitome of good taste -- not an exercise in excess.
"Cheesecake" was funkified by Yonrico Scott's splintered rhythms while the Allmanesque "For My Brother" gave Trucks an opportunity to display his rich slide playing. Bassist Todd Smalley's rock-bed support and Kofi Burbridge's Hammond B-3 sound kept the entire set right in the pocket.
The highlight of the evening occurred when Johnson joined Trucks on two jazz standards: Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" and Miles' "Mr. P.C.," a tribute to his bassist Paul Chambers. They were a magical nine minutes. Musicians listened a little harder, stretched a little farther and reached a little higher. The creative spark was struck.
Eric Johnson and Alien Love Child and the Derek Trucks Band
Monday night at UB's Center for the Arts.