A Joe Satriani concert is a freak show of sorts. One can almost picture him as a guitar-playing geek being pitched by a circus barker: “Come one, come all—come see the amazing Satriani, a musician whose superhuman speed defies the laws of nature. Watch as his fingers multiply right before your very eyes. Witness for yourself his devilish fretboard magic. You will be amazed! Astounded! What kind of creature is he? No one knows. Only one thing is for sure: No mere human can play like this!”
Tuesday night at the State Theatre, hundreds of Satriani’s fans set aside their guitars and crawled out of their basements to see the gifted one in action. Depending on which “greatest guitarists of all time” list you refer to, Satriani is usually somewhere between the twentieth and fiftieth best guitarists ever, and if extra points are given for technical virtuosity and speed, he often makes the top ten.
Satriani’s liability is that he specializes in a brand of brash, muscular instrumental rock that dispenses with lyrics and choruses, vaulting the extended (and some would say self-indulgent) guitar solo to its own peculiar art form. This may help explain why the ratio of men to women in his audiences is about twenty to one. As dozens of graying men with a day’s worth of stubble stood in line for beer, I spied one woman leaning against a pillar with a grande cup of Starbuck’s coffee in her hand. “It can’t be that boring,” I joked as I walked by, and she just arched her eyebrows, as if to say, “You have no idea.”
Love him or hate him, Satriani is the embodiment of the virtuoso rock guitarist, an artist who has freed himself from the shackles of standard rock (all that singing is chick stuff) so that his crazy, wailing solos can climb ever higher into the stratosphere. The envy of guitarists and air-guitarists alike, Satriani is in his fifties, but he still plays like a crazed sixteen-year-old. He is also experiencing a surge in popularity these days because when actual crazed sixteen-year-olds hit the expert level in Guitar Hero, they run into Satriani’s “Satch Boogie,” a song so fast and difficult to play that it has sapped many a teenager’s will to live.
And so they gathered at the State to see Satriani live, if for no other reason than to make sure that the genius they’ve witnessed on YouTube isn’t some clever trick of video-editing. Our kids crave authenticity; they still admire genuine skill—and they got plenty of it Tuesday night. Satriani dug into the vault for tunes like “Ice 9,” from his first album, Surfing with the Alien, but also played plenty of numbers from his latest, most ostentatiously titled album, Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock (musterion is Greek for “mystery”), which is more of the same: pile-driving drums and punchy bass (by the great Stu Hamm) that provide the launching pad for Satriani’s savant-like musical odysseys.
In person, Satriani is short, skinny, and bald, and his skin is ghostly white, as if he still spends most of his time in his basement, safely protected from the sun’s harmful rays. He even wears sunglasses onstage. But he’s also an accessible musician, one who promises the gift of awesomeness to anyone willing to practice until their fingers bleed. He has set the bar of musicianship ridiculously high, but there it is—and whether you try to beat him on Guitar Hero or in real life, the challenge is formidable.
Before he hit it big, Satriani was just another guitar teacher in Berkeley, California, and I do admire his teacher’s sense of history. Minneapolis was only the fourth city on his U.S tour, and the opening act he is featuring on this tour is a band called Mountain, which you have to be a real rock ‘n’ roll trivia nut to appreciate. Mountain is a band from the 1960s that actually played at the original Woodstock, but never made it into the “official” Woodstock movie, and so has become a mere footnote in rock history.
In the evolution of rock, Mountain is usually regarded as a pre-metal band that paved the way for such harder, steelier acts as Metallica and Judas Priest. Frontman Leslie West is touted as someone who picked up the flaming twin batons of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, and drummer Corky Laing was one of the first to use twin kick drums, a staple of every heavy metal band in the world today. Miraculously, Mountain is enjoying a resurgence of late. Why? Because their song “Mississippi Queen” is included in Guitar Hero 3! (Never underestimate the power of Guitar Hero to reenergize a career).
Last night’s nifty bit of history had to do with the fact that Mountain’s latest album is a full-blown tribute to Bob Dylan called Masters of War. (It’s the album Dylan would have made if he had gone from electric to metal.) Last night, Mountain was playing in the State Theatre, a property once owned by Dylan, and West sang, of all things, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” snarling the first two verses solo with an edgy electric vamp, then bringing the rest of the band in to rock the tune loose in a way that would make Joan Baez blush, updating the urgency of Dylan’s lyrics with an appropriate amount of twenty-first-century growl and crunch. Sung on a day when the Dow dropped more than 500 points, while John McCain and Barack Obama were debating who should be the next president, Mountain brought with them the not-so-gentle breeze of history, amplified to the point of pain.
Which felt just about right.