WASHINGTON, October 9, 2013 — For all intents and purposes, Joe Satriani is a guitar savant. When people show up to watch him play like they did at the Warner Theater during his recent appearance here, it’s not usually for the traditional reasons people show up to see a concert. Nor are the people who attend his show your average concert goers. These are people who want to be mesmerized by a genuine hard rock guitar virtuoso like Satriani as he power mixes his riffs and the extreme edginess of his stage band through a virtual blender.
It’s not that fans of Satriani are especially well versed or even appreciative of extreme guitar playing, even the technical variety. Any serious fan of music fan should be able to appreciate how good Satriani is on the guitar and how innovative he can be when performing at his absolute peak. But the people who consider themselves serious fans of Satriani tend to be a different breed.
This is primarily because the music Satriani performs and composes is functionally different than most music people are used to listening to, especially in the hard rock vein. That’s perhaps an odd comment to make, because everything he puts out seems to fall in the range of what people regard as rock music. But there’s a considerable gulf between what Satriani plays and what the typical hard rock or metal band usually offers. The difference all has to do with song structure.
Lyrics are something that people think about often when it comes to various forms of pop music. But it’s not often noted by either fans or critics how lyrics can build an individual song from structural stand point. For the most part, everyone is used to hearing lyrics, whether they’re part of the chorus or the verse (or both). It even sounds like an entirely different animal when a lyricist throws off the traditional verse/chorus structure of a song. But this is what most music listeners – serious or otherwise – have come to expect over decades of guitar driven music.
Joe Satriani and others of his instrumental guitar playing persuasion not only shy away totally from lyrics but almost ignore the basic structure most music fans have been conditioned to listen over the years. Instead, he builds on ever expanding and complex riffs, drum beats, and bass lines.
Everything has a reasonably distinctive approach. But it’s all predicated on what builds especially well for a specific instrument. In addition, where solos normally compliment existing instrumental parts in garden variety pop music, when it comes to Satriani’s work, the solos are used to build toward—even more riffing.
The biggest obstacle someone like Satriani faces when playing for anyone in the audience who isn’t already converted – and in all likelihood there weren’t many of those at the Warner Theater – is making sure his complex riffing doesn’t almost literally devour itself.
To non-converts—the kind of person who isn’t hanging on every single note Satriani is playing—it’s easy to see where his style can seem resemble an endless, random stream of unrecognizable guitar playing. Where a guitarist of Satriani’s caliber may prefer to be focused on the complexity of his riffing, the variety and complexity of these variations can easily be lost.
Satriani seems to understand this kind of obstacle and keeps things varied and loose during the entire performance. It helps that he has no problem sharing the limelight with the rest of his band on stage – Mike Keneally on keys/guitar, Bryan Beller on bass, and Marco Minneman on drums – as well as letting each of them shine at various intervals during the performance, similar to the way a great jazz ensemble works.
This team dynamic allows each one of his songs to possess a distinctly different mood and tone while seeming to fit together as if it were the backdrop to an ‘80s science fiction film, an effect that’s furthered by Satriani’s bald head with dark shades stage appearance.
Worrying about just who it is that’s attending his show needn’t be a focus for Satriani. That’s because nearly everyone, at least here at the Warner, was fairly comfortable hanging on his every riff. That shows how much Satriani understands what works when he appears onstage.
The way Satriani built his set during his Warner Theater show was complex but varied enough to never linger in the air for very long. He succeeded in keeping all sides or the musical argument satisfied for the entire night with many eagerly awaiting his next live appearance.