WHEN THE Austin Chronicle bestowed its local Album of the Decade Award, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Joe Ely were runners-up to the victory tie between Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood" and Eric Johnson's "Tones." Eric who?
Johnson, a revered hero at home, is virtually unknown elsewhere, but that may change with "Ah Via Musicom," his first album since 1986's "Tones." Johnson's material is quite different from the blues/boogie sound of Austin's Vaughan brothers; instead he follows the example of similar guitar heroes Joe Satriani and Steve Morse in exploring a wide range of hard-rock, fusion and pop styles. Thus the new album's instrumentals range from the Hendrixisms of the title cut to the Dire Straits lyricism of "Trademark," and from the high-speed country-twang of "Steve's Boogie" to the elegant jazz tribute to Wes Montgomery, "East Wes."
Johnson is a mediocre lyricist but is as good a singer as Eric Clapton, and songs like "High Landrons" and "Nothing Can Keep Me From You" (with its Dicky Betts guitar fills) are radio-ready hard pop songs. Like Vaughan, Satriani and Morse, Johnson will dazzle those who get excited about sheer technique on the guitar; he's not only fast, but he comes up with marvelous guitar tones and catchy licks. Listeners who expect a unified sound and solid songwriting will be less impressed by this eclectic guitar showcase album. ERIC JOHNSON --
"Ah Via Musicom" (Capitol). Appearing Friday with Michael Fath at the Bayou.