Back in 1987, I had the great pleasure of meeting guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani in a small record store in Berkeley, California. “Satch” had not yet broken nationally, but had just released what would become his breakthrough album “Surfing with the Alien.” As a guitarist myself, I was able to easily strike up a conversation with him about his music and his playing style. Although he seemed shy and a bit reserved, the sparkle in his eye and bubbling excitement in his voice could not disguise his passion. He lived and breathed his instrument, and wanted to share that excitement with anyone who would listen – including some random stranger in a used record shop.
Fast forward 30 years and the man hasn’t changed. Sure, he shaves his head now and dresses a bit more reserved than he did as a late 80’s guitar god, but his passion remains. Satch has fun when he plays. His guitar is not merely an instrument to him, but an extension of who he is. And it is a true joy to witness.
Satriani began assembling these G3 shows back in 1995 – with his former student, Steve Vai, and Austin’s own guitar wizard Eric Johnson – as a way to share the stage and play with the musicians he admired. Since those first shows, he has played alongside Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Yngwie Malmsteen, Robert Fripp, Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Uli Jon Roth, and Michael Schenker and a host of others have joined as special guests, including Journey’s Neal Schon and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
For this incarnation, he’s brought together Phil Collen of rock mega-group Def Leppard and John Petrucci from the prog-metal band Dream Theater. The tour came to the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater on Saturday, January 27, 2018.
Although filled with beautiful melodies and amazing musicality, at its core this show is designed as a guitarist’s wet dream. It’s a showcase for rapid-fire guitar solos, overflowing with technical wizardry and masturbatory noodling. In a normal show, this might be annoying. In this setting, it is celebrated.
Phil Collen took the stage first. Accompanied by Forrest Robinson on drums and Craig Martini on bass, Collen’s first two compositions were tailor-made for this type of show, full of fast arpeggios, pick-raking, and fretboard calisthenics. But Collen is not known as an instrumentalist, usually working with another guitarist to enhance and drive Def Leppard’s iconic rock sound. Accordingly, these compositions were more than a bit derivative. The opener sounded like a Jeff Beck outtake and the second – aptly titled “Yo 2 Joe” – had Satriani written all over it. But it didn’t matter. They were merely vehicles for Collen to demonstrate his solid rhythmic playing and virtuoso blues-based melodic technique. The band was obviously having a blast and the audience of shred-heads ate it up.
For the third song, Collen welcomed vocalist Debbi Blackwell-Cook to the stage. At this point, the set ceased being a solo feature for Collen and became a showcase for his side project “Delta Deep.” (Side note: Delta Deep’s live album “East Coast Live” dropped yesterday). This wasn’t a bad thing. While the musical genre shifted strongly towards the bluer side of the musical spectrum, Collen’s shredding did not take a back seat. Instead, he blended his guitar pyrotechnics with standard pentatonic scales and served up a tasty meal of hard-rocking, 21st-century blues-rock.
Blackwell-Cook’s vocals were strong and she showed a vocal range that challenged the high notes of Collen’s guitar as they played off of each other in customary call-and-response. Her gritty voice worked amazingly well with Collen’s own gruff vocal style. The songs were strong, based on tried and true rhythms, but rocked-out with contemporary flavor and dynamic leads. A cover of Deep Purple’s “Mistreated” was a particular standout.
PHIL COLLEN PHOTO GALLERY
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What followed was an onslaught of masterful shredding. Joined onstage by bass player Dave LaRue and Dream Theater’s drummer Mike Mangini, Petrucci burned through a set of intense instrumentals. Petrucci’s chops are simply amazing. His rapid-fire picking, two-handed tapping and intense legato leads could not be coming from one person. At times he sounded like he had an extra hand or two helping him out. Whether he was frolicking through the Celtic stylings of “Glasgow Kiss,” delivering the rhythmic crunch and melodic leads of “Jaws of Life,” or riding the insane tempo changes of “Damage Control” from his 2005 solo album “Suspended Animation,” he had a smile plastered across his face.
JOHN PETRUCCI PHOTO GALLERY
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The band – consisting of Bryan Beller on bass, Joe Travers on drums and Mike Kenneally on guitar and keyboards -is amazingly tight, giving Satriani the room he needs to execute his harmonic wails and melodic leads. These are all instrumentals, but Satch’s signature style is so melodic, and his playing so effortless, that it’s easy to forget this. His guitar is his voice.
He follows with another off of his latest album, bobbing his head as he plays to the robotic beat of “Catbot.” Showing an amazing level of confidence in his new album, six of the tunes from his 11-song set came from “What Happens Next,” And the audience was right there with him.
The biggest applause came for the songs from “Surfing with the Alien.” As he played the opening riff from “Satch Boogie,” the audience rose to their feet and cheered as if they couldn’t help themselves.
He did all of the rock guitar poses. He played with his teeth. His face expanded and contracted with each exclamatory note, his expressions seemingly tied to his fingers. Most of all he just played. And wowed. And played. And amazed. And he made it all look effortless.
“Cherry Blossoms” followed. Over a beat that resembled Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” he played the first slower song of his set. As good as his shredding is, Satriani really shines when he becomes one with the melody, as he did in this song. There is a pure beauty in the nuance of his playing, where playing less is more. And in this setting, the contrast was amazing and the results ethereal.
He roared through his 11-song set, closing with the beautiful “Always With Me, Always With You,” and ending his set with a house-rocking version of “Summer Song” off of 1992’s “The Extremist.”
Satriani’s playing is such that he draws you in and you ride each and every note like an aural rollercoaster. As he hit the final chord of his last song, the crowd let out an enormous cheer, exhausted from the experience, yet still wanting more.
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And more is what they got – times three. Satch brought Collen and Petrucci back out for a three-song encore that had Blackwell-Cook adding vocals.
They opened with Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” Blackwell-Cook showed her incredible range, diving deep into the lower registers and then rapidly escalating to high falsetto screams. Each of the shredders took turns playing mind-numbing solos before they all took center stage and played rapid-fire three-part harmonies during the bridge. Unreal.
They followed with a funky version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Although Wonder had originally written this for rock guitar pioneer Jeff Beck, the guys in G3 stayed truer to Stevie’s version, rather than the expected Jeff Beck Group version.
Phil Collen took the bulk of the vocals on this one as the guitarists traded massive bends during their solo breaks. They ended the song with homages to Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” and “AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as Blackwell-Cook provided the vocal gymnastics.
They closed the evening with the blues standard “Going Down” that unleashed a multi-note onslaught and still more crazy guitar acrobatics and whammy bar swoops and dives.
Satch exclaimed between songs that “This is the best time you could have as a guitar player!” It’s also pretty damn good if your guitar playing fan.