Like a veteran sports hero returning to his hometown, the powerful wavefront that is Joe Satriani brought his magical mix of Maxwell’s equations and Marshall stacks to the Tilles Center last week.
The “Surfing to Shockwave” tour 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of Satriani’s (“Satch,” for true believers) debut album, Not of This Earth. That was then. Fifteen albums later, with unit sales exceeding ten million albums, the artist has built a worldwide following in a genre that is as deep as any instrumentalist on any instrument.
Studio Version of “On Peregrine Wings”
Satriani fired up two high-energy sets with the title song from his most recent album, Shockwave Supernova. The silver-jacketed, sunglass-cloaked guitarist, flanked by drummer Mark Minnemann, five-string bassist Bryan Beller and Mike Keneally alternating between guitar and synthesizer, started at a high energy level and remained there for most of the evening. Playing in front of three Marshall stacks (um, no, not there just for show), the ensemble moved to the melodic “Flying in a Blue Dream,” which was truly over too soon.
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Sometimes the songs in the evening’s more than 20 tunes were improved over studio versions by more varied and kinetic drumming by Minnemann and more exposed guitar duets between Satriani and Keneally.
TRIVIA On which 80’s album does Joe Satriani appear singing background vocals?
Kudos to the Tilles Center and sound crew. Getting the sound mix right for a loud act isn’t easy. The double bass drum patterns weren’t muffled either by trebly leads or muddy bass.
Guitar Virtuosity vs. Hapless Ibanez
With classical acts in this venue and others, the wow factor comes from virtuosity (preferably manifested at a young age). The wow factor for guitar heroes is similar, but with a dramatic instrument flair. As close to human-instrument tango as it gets, the moves are as gripping as they are stereotyped.
Satriani has mastered all these moves: the howls, dives, squeals, tooth-plucking and ruthless attacks on the tremolo bar. It’s a choreography to match an exploding wall of sound. (How did that orange JS2410 stay in tune for two whole songs?).
Showmanship? Perhaps, and the clever quotes from Zeppelin songs were calculated to appeal to an audience that didn’t mind being seduced by the tactic.
Gender Amp Bias: The “Woman Tone”
In many ways, a guitar is the Swiss army knife of pop, folk and rock music. Consider the vast range between Joan Baez fingerpicking through “Diamonds and Rust” and Joe Satriani in “On Peregrine Wings.” Between them find practitioners like Dick Dale, Frank Vignola and at least a thousand other guitarists known and unknown. A guitar can be used to supply rhythm, for ostinato, or leads.
The lead sound that is today associated with Joe Satriani can be traced to the work of earlier guitarists working at mid-century into the 60’s.
For this reviewer, it was a Yardbirds song that stood out. Jeff Beck’s 1965 solo in Graham Gouldman’s “Evil Hearted You,” that striking homage to the Phrygian dominant scale, set off a lifelong fascination with that guitar-driven sustained-distortion timbre.
Another major influence came from Cream: Eric Clapton’s solo in Jack Bruce’s “I Feel Free.” According to some, Clapton got that sound, which he called “The Woman Tone,” by turning the amp all the way up, boosting the treble, cutting bass and playing in a sustained style.
Fifty years later, the concept – and the sound – have survived. In 2014, pickup manufacturer Seymour Duncan put up a web page dedicated to the mechanics of obtaining the “Woman Tone.”
True, this sound can be obtained from effects units (e.g., Fractal AX8), software (Native Instruments Guitar Rig, Amplitude 3, Revalver etc.) and even from modern synths. But the creative blend of tech, technique and tune led to Satriani’s breakout second album Surfing with the Alien.
Alien Paths Retraced
Tracing Satriani’s roots to Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton is not newsworthy for a Satriani audience. Satriani himself also credits Hendrix, Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore (“Rainbow Eyes” from Blackmore’s Night still features the Woman Tone) and Allan Holdsworth as influences.
Others will trace a different path to Satriani, but no matter the wavelength, when he blasted “Shockwave Supernova” at the Tilles crowd, it was a crowd (yes, mostly male, mostly white) whose ears were tuned to frequency of revving Satriani afterburners. By “Ice 9,” the night’s third song but the first recalling Surfing, they felt they could levitate, or at least cover the speed licks themselves.
Listeners only familiar with the tunes from Surfing with the Alien should give the latest album a try. Tunes like “On Peregrine Wings,” perhaps the most adrenaline-rich song of the evening, possess the active polyphony and tunefulness that vaulted Surfing off the launch pad.
Everything but Lyrics
More often than not, a Satriani instrumental comes with a lyrical center – even when the rest of the confection is housed in a metal wrapper. That was true on this evening with “Flying in the Blue Dream.” Sure, there’s an improvised shred middle passage, but the rest is a frame any self-respecting poet would be happy to hang a lyric on.
The same recipe was to be found in “Butterfly and Zebra,” penned for Shockwave, which exuded a smooth classical feel beneath the legato overdrive. Satriani told the crowd he was inspired to write it by a lyric from Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
Satriani live offered another benefit. The familiar tunes from Surfing have a more rounded, nuanced texture than the sheen of the oft-aired studio versions.
Surf through a Satellite
In 2015, the year Joe Satriani released Shockwave Supernova backed by the outstanding ensemble of Beller, Minnemann and Keneally, NASA spacecraft caught a solar shockwave in the act for the first time. As scientists told MIT News:
“The resulting magnetosonic pulse, lasting just 60 seconds, reverberated through the Earth’s radiation belts, accelerating certain particles to ultrahigh energies.
‘These are very lightweight particles, but they are ultrarelativistic, killer electrons — electrons that can go right through a satellite,’ said John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory.”
Days after Satch paid a visit to his Long Island devotees – both the hero-worshipping air guitarists and straight-ahead rockers — his songs still pulsed with every bit as much energy long after the auditory traces had faded.
By the night’s end, the question Satriani posed in Shockwave’s “If There is no Heaven” from earlier in the evening is answered.
You get songs that can surf right through a satellite instead.
Next up at the Tilles Center: Experanza Spalding Presents:Emily’s D+Evolution on April 10, 2016 at 7p.
Between the solar shockwave and Earth’s
rattling — an opaque interval — you must
stare, but we people prior will have left
no crude fluid for ignition, for light,
having tapped this rock to gorge
our bellies to petroleum ache.
Perhaps you will have evolved — blood
supplemented with Edison and Tesla’s
currents, half your body fed by generators
that slow-cure your biomass or waste.
Maybe you will be self-luminous.
—from “Dear Echo” by Kyle Dargan
Answer to trivia question: Crowded House (1986)
Image credits: Steven Sandick
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