Saturday, May 21, 2011

Still Scratching My Seven Year Itch (Day 3 of 6)

It's Saturday, May 21, 2011, Day Three of my six-day pre-blogaversary celebration for AYBABTU with some reposts of some of my somewhat more obscure favorite stories over the seven-year life of this space.

Today's entry is one of my favorite music-related posts, a concert review from November 4, 2004, of one of my all-time favorite rock guitarists, Joe Satriani.

Surfin’ with the Aliens

Rock ‘N Roll’s Mister Clean
Joe Satriani. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it could be for a number of reasons:
a.) You're a not a man.
b.) You don't play electric guitar.
c.) You’ve never played air guitar.
d.) You were born after 1987.
e.) All of the above.

If those five items don't describe you and you're still at a loss, perhaps the title of his breakthrough 1987 release, Surfing With the Alien will roust your memory. Perhaps now I've got your attention, if for no other reason than because you're wondering, "What the hell could a song with a title like that be about?" And of course, the answer to that is, "It doesn't matter," because the song has no lyrics, like nearly all of Satriani's body of work, covering 18 albums and spanning 18 years.

Without getting into an unnecessarily involved history of the term, “heavy metal” as a definition of big-sounding genre of guitar music was first coined in 1969 by John Kay and Steppenwolf with the phrase, “heavy metal thunder” in their classic hit, Born to be Wild. Since then artists from Alice Cooper to Lamb of God have etched their mark on a genre that has ambiguously flowed in and out of the pop mainstream.

Despite hitting its pop stride in a big way during the mid-to-late 1980s and early 90s, Heavy Metal has typically existed on the outskirts of the establishment; a rebel without a cause; rife with testosterone-driven power and élan. Metal can be liberating, but can also be dark and tedious. A stalwart of rebellion from the 1960s on in one form or another, it’s the kind of music that teenage boys feed upon; and that which typically drives their parents up the wall.

Metal can be gritty; raunchy; nasty even — and that’s not always a bad thing. It’s
also not always a good thing either.

Joe Satriani’s sound, on the other hand is “clean” Metal — in nearly every respect — from his shaved head to the seemingly endless procession of gleaming guitars he pulls out to play onstage. He is, quite rightfully known as "the guitarist's guitarist." He actually used to teach guitar in San Francisco, attracting the likes of Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Larry LaLonde of Primus and the acclaimed Steve Vai as students. He is in my opinion the preeminent Rock ‘N Roll guitarist of his generation, bar none. Eddie Van Halen? Puh-LEEZE. Joe has both the improvisational and melodic chops to carry his music without vocalist in his act. His guitar does the singing. His albums are 99.5% instrumental. And they rock!

Joe Satriani is different. Some Metal digs ditches. Joe’s Metal soars above the clouds.

Rock ‘N Roll Heaven in the Mother Church
Last week I saw Joe Satriani in concert for the first time after loving his music for 17 years. It was a decidedly different crowd than I was used to seeing at the Ryman Auditorium on a Thursday night. The gender ratio was about 20-1, male-to-female. There was a decided tinge of male essence in the air; and for the first time in the ten years that I’ve been attending concerts at The Ryman, the lines into the men’s restrooms far exceeded those of the women’s.

It was an older and largely blue-collar crowd. I’ve probably not seen that many work shirts all in one auditorium since the union strike vote meetings I attended back in the 1970s as a member of the AFL-CIO. It was almost comical to see all these pudgy, graying, middle-aged guys standing and pumping their fists after nearly every song. You could just about guess that it was all they could do to resist the urge to break out their air guitars and play along with ‘Satch.’

And just as the crowd had a blue-collar makeup, so did Joe Satriani’s work ethic onstage. He played from 7:30pm sharp until 11:00pm with only a 15-minute break in-between. This dude is no glam-rocker. His look was understated and cool, with his signature wraparound shades, a plain black t-shirt, blue jeans and black boots. His backup band featured drums, bass, and rhythm electric & acoustic guitars, but they were clearly in the background.

Not really knowing what to expect, I was sort of expecting a little more in the histrionics department from Satriani, but to his credit, he’s not a very ‘showy’ performer. He does however really step into his music; the deep emotion and joy of his instrumental intercourse is readily apparent in his body language and the incessant smile on his face. The only thing that’s ‘bigtime’ about Joe is the quality of the sound emanating from his axe. Whenever he graciously addressed the crowd, he almost seemed embarrassed by the cheers, which on this night were more than raucous.

I couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable experience, unless it were possible for me to be close enough to catch the dozen or more guitar picks he showered the first few rows with throughout the night. Nevertheless, my vantage point was more than adequate to see the man and capture the experience.

As I had hoped, Satriani borrowed most heavily from his still most commercially successful album, Surfing With the Alien, performing five of the album’s ten songs and finishing the show’s final encore with the classic title track .

A week later that concert is still ringing in my ears. I had always wondered whether or not Satriani would be able to match the output of the recording studio in a live setting, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Much has been made of the fact that a number of Satriani’s former students have now gone on to greater fame than he has. For all of his acclaim in guitar player circles, due to the lack of marketability of all-instrumental rock albums, Joe, while often nominated, has never won that elusive Grammy Award. He has long since been given the playful title of the ‘Susan Lucci of Rock Music.’

Yet the oversight hasn’t bothered him enough to consider combining his efforts with a vocalist (à la Carlos Santana), to produce an effort that the general public would more readily embrace. I really respect him for that. He has said that doing so would detract too much from the music in the way he conceptualizes it. He really does write his music with the idea that his guitar has a voice.

And I’ll always love to hear it sing.

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