EmptyThe Roxy, West Hollywood
Friday, Aug. 17
It's a welcome trend in this age of shuffle play: live shows that feature popular albums played in their entirely. And while some prefer to play note-for-note re-creations of said records, Joe Satriani took the idea and ran with it. And ran.
The guitarist marked the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking "Surfing With the Alien" by turning the 37-minute album into a 70-minute storytime/shred-athon at the Roxy. It was the third stop of a small-venue mini-tour over four consecutive nights, which wrapped Saturday with a handful of fan club contest winners in the San Francisco studio where "Surfing" was recorded.
The album charted in the national top 30 in 1987 and went platinum -- unheard of for an all-instrumental rock guitar effort. Its strong melodies, brisk production, intermittent nonrock elements and blurry fingered solos brightened the dark days of generic hair metal. Fans of the era's flailing metallic leads didn't have to sit through dopey sheen to get to the guitar core.
"Surfing" has held up remarkably well, and Satriani performed it -- and talked about it -- with obvious affection. His precise, technique-driven playing and speed remains remarkable at age 51, but it was the stories behind the album that made this show the most memorable.
With a broad smile below his dark sunglasses and shaved head, Satriani offered nuggets of background before each song that were catnip for dedicated fans of the album: It was to be titled after another track, "Lords of Karma," but a British journalist hated that name so much that Satriani rethought it; the rollicking "Satch Boogie" was intended to sound like a swing band with Gene Krupa; and in introducing "Circles," Satriani said: "I am crazy; I used a Rockman in the solo. The engineer hated me for it."
Jumping right into the album, Satriani opened with the song that normally closes his shows: the title track that leaped off the radio two decades ago. The version was faithful to the record, but he mixed things up after that. An extended version of his FM hit "Always With Me, Always With You" evolved into what sounded like the synth riff from "Won't Get Fooled Again," flirted with the melody of "With a Little Help From My Friends" and then become borderline bluesy. "I knew that the process of making this record would teach me how to play guitar," he said in introducing the ballad, "and it definitely did."
With influences including jazz, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, Satriani repeatedly proved that subtle shredding doesn't have to be an oxymoron, especially during "Lords of Karma." That was followed by a thrilling, speeded-up take on the baroque-influenced "Midnight," which featured his lesson in two-handed tapping.
The sheer effortlessness of his playing reminds of how those PGA Tour golfers make their specialty seem so easy. Indeed, the Guitar Institute of Technology types were there Friday to take mental (and maybe physical) notes on the celebrated teacher of the instrument, and there was a cheer when Satriani addressed "all you guitar players in the audience."
His detractors snipe that Satriani plays more by the book than from the heart, but that misses the point. This was a tremendous performance by a gifted musician of a moment-in-time album (along with a half-hour coda set). And it was a blast.