Monday, March 12, 2012

Satchurated (Available on home video April 10)

[SATCHURATED will be available on home video April 10th)

Review by Pete Roche

Joe Satriani can drop jaws with breakneck 32nd note runs up and down the scale of his custom Ibanez guitars.  But he can also bruise hearts with a single, well-timed, sweet-toned string bend.  There was a lot of both going on last Thursday night when his new 3D concert film SATCHURATED premiered in Cleveland at The Capitol Theater. 

Known as “Satch” in guitar circles, the shred guru released was signed to Relativity Records in 1986 on the strength of his self-financed, all-instrumental EP.  His first full-length, Not of This Earth, was a sensational collection of futuristic-sounding rock songs powered by Joe’s technical flash and fret board fluidity.  But it wasn’t until former student (and Zappa alumnus) Steve Vai found fame with David Lee Roth that Satriani’s star truly ascended.  The flamboyant Italian stunt guitarist (who appeared as Jack Butler in the movie Crossroads) was grateful for his newfound success and wouldn’t stop gushing about the Berkeley-based instructor who got him started.   Consequently, Joe already enjoyed a mythical, Yoda-like status among metal-heads even before the release of his seminal sophomore album.

1987’s Surfing With the Alien heralded the arrival of one of the genre’s most influential players this side of Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen.  Inspired by science fiction and comic book heroes, the all-instrumental disc blew minds with its remarkable combination of heavy metal guitar hysterics with surf rock and boogie blues.  There was no shortage of poofy-haired guitar gods in the 80s, to be sure—but guys like George Lynch, Glenn Tipton, and Vernon Reid unleashed their incendiary talents within the confines of conventional rock bands fronted by equally charismatic singers.  Satriani’s new sonic brew commanded—and sustained—a listener’s attention without using any words at all.   

But that was only the beginning.

Music had been calling the native New Yorker for some time, but it wasn’t until learning of Jimi Hendrix’s sudden death that Joe swapped his football shoulder pads for a guitar.  Satriani was a fast learner, and by the time he relocated to Berkeley, California in the late 1970s he had students of his own—including Kirk Hammett and Alex Skolnick.  He taught by day (and attended music classes of his own) but gigged with New Wave trio The Squares at night to keep his chops fresh.  Relativity Records, a fledgling label devoted to hard rock and progressive music, signed Joe on the strength of his experimental, all-guitar EP in 1984 and financed the otherworldly Not of This Earth two years later. 

Enter Surfing and Vai’s high praise in the music press, and Satriani was on his way.

Since then, the San Francisco guitarist has played with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, cofounded the semiannual guitar-centric “G3” tour with Steve Vai, and joined supergroup Chickenfoot with members of Van Halen and Red Hot Chili Peppers.  But perhaps most importantly, the humble guitar god known as “Satch” made it cool to be a virtuoso rock musician in an era when not knowing how to play had become the norm.  Hell, Joe even made it hip to shred with no hair.

The innovative six-stringer released the jaw-dropping Not of This Earth in 1986, but it was his self-financed follow-up—Surfing With the Alien—that turned the music world on its ear.  Featuring space-themed instrumental guitar rock, a blues boogie, and a touching ballad, the album was packed with blazing solos, whammy-bar dive-bombs, two-handed tapping, and faster-than light scales in exotic modes that had newbies wondering, “Who the hell is this guy, and what is Pitch Axis Theory?”

Subsequent years found Joe cultivating a loyal following of predominantly male guitar enthusiasts, all of whom snatched up albums like Crystal Planet and Engines of Creation to rock out while getting schooled.  The busy Bay area musician issued solo records every other year, earning a stunning fifteen Grammy nods (but no wins) for his more melodic work.  Satriani graced guitar magazine covers, wrote guest columns, and toured regularly—both alone and with G3 lineups including Vai, Eric Johnson, Michael Schenker, and John Petrucci.

These days, it’s almost inconceivable for anyone to sell millions of albums and concert tickets without singing a note.  But Joe’s done just that (notwithstanding a couple experimental vocal tracks on 1989’s Flying in a Blue Dream).  Now his pursuit of the “strange, beautiful music” continues on the road with Chickenfoot, and in writing sessions for his next solo project.

Satch always delivers in concert, but the production quality on his past DVD releases has been hit-and-miss.  Some films were good (Live in San Francisco, G3: Live in Tokyo, Satriani Live! 2006) and some ghastly (I Just Wanna Rock: Live in Paris).  Fortunately, Satchurated falls into the latter category.  And it looked great on the big screen.  Directed by acclaimed music filmmakers Pierre and Francois Lamoureux—whose DVD work features such diverse artists as Pretenders, The Who, Rush, and Ben Harper—the film captures a performance by Joe and friends in Montreal during 2010’s Wormhole Tour.

Satriani’s impeccable backup band on the tour included Jeff Campitelli (drums), Mike Keneally (keys), Galen Henson (guitar) and Allen Whitman (bass).  Campitelli’s been a longtime Satch player, throttling his DW drums and Paiste cymbals behind the guitarist since the early nineties.  Sporting headphones, a “Kabuki” T-shirt, and perpetual smile, the drummer clearly loves his work.

Looking a cross between Philip Seymour-Hoffman and David Gilmour, multi-instrumentalist Keneally (ex-Zappa, Beer for Dolphins, Steve Vai) manned a Korg keyboard and vintage Rhodes Seventy-Three throughout the set, adding texture to newer songs like “Light Years Away” and “Premonition.”  Occasionally he’d trade licks with Joe in a sort of call-and-response duel—at one point rubbing his nose across the keys to answer Satriani’s stunt of playing guitar with his teeth.

Imagine a taller Guy Pearce with long tresses and Chuck Taylor tennis shoes and you’ll have a vision of Whitman, the group’s newest member.  An alumnus of surf-punk band The Mermen, he compensated for lack of Stu Hamm funk chops with attitude, flailing his hair and engaging the crowd during “Ice 9” and “Hordes of Locusts.”  Whitman’s got a unique picking style, favoring up-strokes on his four-string instead of down—a technique that looks peculiar but makes sense when one realizes it’s similar to how one typically plays bass without a pick, tugging and plucking the strings up with one’s fingers rather than bearing down on them with a plectrum.

Hensen was the quintet’s straight man, content to hang back stage left and augment Satriani’s fiery fret board excursions with steady rhythm guitar.  He handled the entrancing chord progression of “Flying in a Blue Dream” on an acoustic, then joined Joe up front for the flamenco fury of “Andalusia.”  Later, Hensen fielded the artificial harmonics of “Wind in the Trees,” his strings chiming while Satch wailed.

Joe—decked in jeans, purple sneakers, and a black Tee with pinstripes—alternated between white and red Ibanez guitars, the phalanges of his left hand a blur on their fingerboards for most of the night.  It’s hard to get an emotional read on Satriani during his shows because he always wears sunglasses—but one supposes his eyes are closed most of the time anyway.  Which isn’t to say the guitarist doesn’t enjoy performing or takes his audience for granted.  On the contrary, Satriani often seems completely given over to his instruments and the sounds coming out of them—be it the blues (“Littleworth Lane”) or proto-metal (“War”) or funk-rock (“God is Crying”).  His hands summoned the power cosmic for the hammer-on, pull-off blitzkrieg of “Crystal Planet” and his feet worked the Wah-wah and other toe-triggered contraptions on his pedal board.  “Big Bad Moon” had Satch singing, playing harmonica, and slide. 

Set lists for the Montreal show (and other stops on the Wormhole tour) suggest several other tunes were performed on this night—including “Memories,” “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing,” “Crowd Chant,” and “Always With Me, Always With You”—but didn’t make it into the film for one reason or another.  Still, at ninety solid minutes, Satchurated rocks without overstaying its welcome.  The 3D is a nice touch—but you almost don’t notice it until someone in the crowd throws up a fist or raises their cell phone for a picture.  There was a moment or two when I had to remind myself that said hands belonged to audience members in the movie and not to any knuckleheads in my theater. 

Miss the exclusive cinema engagement?  Never fear.  SATCHURATED will hit DVD this Spring, and even the 2D version will blow away fans frame-by-frame, with multiple angles shot in high-definition from ten cameras strategically placed throughout the old Metropolis Theater.  3 out of 4 stars.

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