Satriani marks 30th year as solo artist
For only the third time in his career, guitarist Joe Satriani is playing evening-with shows on this winter’s “Surfing To Shockwave” tour — meaning fans will be treated to a set that spans upwards of two and a half hours each night.
Satriani and his touring band, Mike Keneally (keyboards, guitars), Bryan Beller (bass) and Marco Minnemann (drums), are excited about both the occasion and the chance to add songs that would be left out of a usual headlining set.
“This is a special evening, and it’s a unique vibe of really coming together between us and the audience,” Satriani said in an early February phone interview. “That’s a unique part of, I think, the evening-with shows, a stronger sense of, I don’t want to use that word community, but the freaks all get together and we get to kind of celebrate the whole thing together.”
The show format will give Satriani the chance not only to showcase his latest album, “Shockwave Supernova,” but to mark the 30th anniversary of his solo career by playing songs from across his album catalog. It also might be a physically taxing endeavor considering the extra length of the shows and the fact that the tour numbers some 60 shows.
“Sometimes G3, where you play (only) 45 minutes and three more songs, it can leave my left arm feeling just as bad as if I’d just played for four hours,” Satriani said, mentioning his ongoing series of tours where he is joined by two other top guitarists, each playing individual sets before joining forces to end the show.
He guesses the mindset he brings to the stage night after night has a lot to do with how physically demanding a tour ends up being.
“I’ve always felt I was not like that easy-going performer that can play my best all of the time,” Satriani said. “Some of my friends are just gifted that way. Things don’t bother them. And it’s different with me. I’m always like thinking ‘Oh, my hands are freezing, I can’t warm up.’ Or, I didn’t get enough sleep or emotionally I’m sort of left of center. It always seem like it’s a bit of a struggle. Just playing guitar has always been hard for me.”
To hear Satriani say he struggles with guitar probably will come as a surprise to many. This is a guy who is universally recognized as one rock’s premier guitarists, a musician good enough to have taught guitar to Steve Vai, Kirk Hammet (of Metallica), Larry LaLonde (of Primus) and Alex Skolnick, among other accomplished players.
But Satriani says the solos, riffs and parts he’s played on his 15 studio albums and on stage for 30 years didn’t necessarily flow from his fingers as effortlessly or naturally as it might have appeared. Like most musicians, Satriani has to put in plenty of work to get his chops up to speed. Certain parts simply don’t come naturally to him, he said. And that becomes especially apparent when he writes music.
“My method of writing and recording puts me in a vulnerable spot because I don’t write what I can play,” Satriani said. “I generally imagine the (musical) story I want to tell, and then I set about trying to play it. And I struggle with it to get it recorded. Then I have to deal with what I’ve done. If people like it, I realize ‘Oh, now I’ve really done it. Now I’ve got to get good at it.’ It’s not like where you can perfect it in the studio over a period of hours. You have to learn how to do that on call every night really well. So my writing has sort of propelled my technique (to) getting better in so many areas of playing guitar.”
But Satriani, obviously, was better than the average guitar player from the moment he came into the public eye. And with his second album, 1987’s “Surfing with the Alien,” he became one of the rare instrumental artists to connect on a major level. Two singles from the album, “Satch Boogie” and the title track, became mainstream rock singles and the album went platinum. The success caught the guitarist totally off guard, and his solo career has produced more than 10 million in combined album sales and 15 Grammy nominations.
Along the way, Satriani has grown from a green-as-it-gets performer — he remembers standing mostly still on stage during his first three-week tour as a solo artist — into a band leader who is engaging and at times downright flashy on stage.
The persona Satriani has developed as a performer gave him inspiration for the theme behind “Shockwave Supernova.”
On tour behind his 2013 album, “Unstoppable Momentum,” Satriani noticed his teeth didn’t feel right, and found he was doing damage by playing guitar with his teeth each night on stage. It was all part of his efforts to connect with the audience and create a special concert experience. For his last show of the tour, he promised himself he wouldn’t play with his teeth and it would serve as the start of a commitment to his dental health.
“Once I hit the stage, I was not that calm, clear-thinking collected person that you’re talking to now,” Satriani said. “I became that other guy and I was on my knees playing with my teeth really early in the show.”
On vacation after the tour, Satriani thought about that moment, and the way it symbolized how a performer can create an alter ego on stage to overcome natural shyness or some other traits that don’t lend themselves to entertaining an audience. He mused about what would ensue if the real person and alter ego started battling each other?
“I thought wouldn’t that be interesting if that was really a problem I had, where my wife and my manager sat me down and said ‘You know, you’ve got a problem. You’re becoming this other person,’”
Satriani said. “And then I started thinking what if it was just an internal, just a mental struggle going on with a performer and they slowly lose themselves?”
“I supposed that this performer who is shy and retiring had created a monster and it got out of control,” he said. “Then they had to argue and then they use the songs to argue their case back to each other, with ‘Shockwave’ (the alter ego) saying look at all I’ve done. Look at all the things we’ve done.’ But the real Joe is saying ‘Yeah, but look at all the hell we’ve gone through.’”
This scenario is played out over the course of 15 songs on “Shockwave Supernova” that range from the bracing rock of “Scarborough Stomp” to the snappy groove of “In My Pocket” to the sleek shuffle of “San Francisco Blue” to the silken beauty of “Lost in a Memory.”
The final song, “Goodbye Supernova,” brings everything to a resolution — with an emotional charge that captures the opposing forces at work on the album.
“The last song is a struggle with accepting that there’s something beautiful and new in dissolving and the two personalities becoming one, something better,” Satriani said. “I think that was the hardest song to do because I didn’t want it to be all clean and beautiful. I wanted there to be some uncomfortableness about it, so by the time the song ended, it felt really great. But it had to start with some tension.”