2013-09-07

Concert Review: Joe Satriani

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to wear out a VHS copy of the original G3 concert video, the one with Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. (Apparently this video is now available on YouTube, here, for example.)

When I say "wear out" I mean I used to watch that video multiple times per week. I was obsessed with it. My friends would get together for hours-on-end jams, and when we were finally so tired that we couldn't move our hands anymore, we'd head into my basement and watch this G3 video.

Time passes, tastes change, and the music world undergoes unfathomable transformations. Almost twenty years later, I am still listening to Joe Satriani, despite the dire predictions from my friends and others, who condescendingly insisted that I would one day "grow out of it."

But grow out of what? Satriani is an iconic musician, a man who has managed to attract an enormous world-wide fan base by playing instrumental rock songs that are decidedly "uncool" in a world progressively more and more obsessed with what is "cool" with each passing year. That kind of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes a musician with a real ability to communicate with the audience, a musician capable of composing meaningful, emotional music, to make that sort of thing happen.

I have understood all this on an intellectual level. I even thought I understood this on a profound emotional level, as a dedicated fan willing to buy many Joe Satriani albums.

Last night, though, I realized that - having never seen and heard him live, in concert - I did not really understand Joe Satriani.

This is rare, especially in this day and age. Most good musicians a capable of - indeed, they even specialize in - conveying their musical essence on a recording. Most great artists in this day and age play the recording studio (or the Pro Tools rig, or whatever) as though it were another instrument. They sequence rhythm and ambient tracks, they overlap layer upon layer of guitars, keyboards, and vocals. They record as many takes as they need in order to make the recording sound like what they want. So, when you see the average musician perform in this day and age, you can expect to hear something very much like the album. Coldplay, for example, put on a great show, but at the end of the day the songs were not very different from what you hear on the album. I saw a Porcupine Tree concert once that sounded exactly like the album. In both cases, it was impressive, to be sure.

But last night, when Joe Satriani took the stage with a phenomenal trio of side musicians (Bryan Beller on bass, Macro Minnemann on drums - both from the Aristocrats - and the amazing Mike Keneally on keyboards and second guitar) and started playing, my jaw hit the floor. That's because there is a certain class of musician out there who has the incredible ability to speak to the audience's collective heart during a live performance in a way that cannot possibly be described or anticipated.

It can't be recorded, either. Like I said, I've been watching Joe Satriani live videos for nearly 20 years; I've been buying his CDs, and looking him up on YouTube, and reading about him in articles, etc., etc. But the true essence of Joe Satriani can't really be captured by technology. It must be experienced firsthand.

The set consisted of Satriani standards: "Always With Me, Always With You," "Satch Boogie," "Surfing With the Alien," "The Crush of Love," "Flying in a Blue Dream," "Summer Song," and so on. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the newer material they played. I can remember hearing at least six of the eleven songs off the new Unstoppable Momentum album. Thus, Satriani made it clear that he is not simply a legendary, beloved guitarist content to rest on his laurels, but rather a still-vital artist touring behind an all-new album. In fact, I was impressed by how well the new material compared to the older "hits." Satriani easily proved that he still has plenty of impressive material bouncing around in his trademark bald head.

The band was full of an invigorating energy. All four musicians were running and occasionally even jumping around on stage (okay, Minnemann was stuck behind the drum kit, but was no less physical in his performance). Keneally even got to enjoy a few solo spotlights of his own, and proved that he's the right man for the job of keeping up with a guitar legend. The performance was so infectious that even those apparently reluctant audience members - the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the die-hard Satriani fans, who had been dragged there mostly as a compromise or acquiescence to the intense pleading of their friends and family members - were screaming and dancing (yes, dancing to instrumental rock guitar music) throughout the full course of the evening.

When it was all over, my own wife looked at me and said what we were both thinking: "That was the best concert I've ever been to in my life."

No exaggeration. If you have the opportunity to see Joe Satriani during this Unstoppable Momentum Tour, don't think twice. This is the real deal.