Whatever your views on widdly-diddly guitarists, Joe Satriani’s place in the pantheon has been long assured. Speedy runs and Hendrixy squeals aside, his tasteful lyricism, musical invention and stylistic influence on legions of acolytes put him on a higher plane. Classic Rock has witnessed his talent many times over the years – at the Royal Albert Hall with Robert Fripp and Steve Vai during their G3 jaunt, several times from high up in the gods at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Each time he was a distant, dazzling figure, purveying his strange beautiful guitar music to a sell-out crowd. These were well-attended, raucous shows that felt like events, with Satch, band and guests cranking up their performance to hit the level required.
This year he’s back with his accomplished 15th record Shockwave Supernova (didn’t we put that in our hair in the 80s?) , and Cardiff is the fifth UK stop on the Shockwave World Tour. St David’s Hall is a spacious auditorium, with every seat affording a great view of the stage and on this cold, wet Guy Fawkes Night it’s shy of its 2000 capacity, and despite Satch’s best efforts, the real fireworks are happening outside.
Earlier, rising South African blues star Dan Patlansky warmed the crowd with a convincing support slot drawing on his recent record Dear Silence Thieves, and when Satriani comes on with his new album’s title track, it is to waves of affection from the Cardiff crowd. But wait, what’s with the sound? The hall’s sucking out all the mid-range, sending it drifting up into the roof in echoes, so we’re left with Bryan Beller’s rumbling bass, Satch’s belting high end, and a fudge in between. You sort of get used to it, but at points the music’s so loud and with such mushy definition you can see people put fingers in their ears, creating a lo-fi EQ unit of their own to hear what’s really going on.
Nevertheless, the two-hour set is a treat, casting widely across his 30-year repertoire. Lights colour the stage for the ever-beautiful Flying In A Blue Dream, Ice 9 remains one of his most replete rock moments, and – nostalgia aside – rave-from-the-grave Not Of This Earth holds up very well. One of the few times this taciturn rock star speaks is before Friends. He tells us there’s nothing better than being in a room surrounded by friends, at which he points at us and taps his heart with his fist, Hokey? Perhaps. But he is one of the nicest men in music, so we’ll take that.
Former Zappa/Vai alumnus Mike Keneally is a surprise hit tonight. He may look like Bill Bryson (cardies in rock – discuss), but he’s not afraid to descend from his keyboards with a Strat and cut heads with Joe on If I Could Fly (the tune that caused all that kerfuffle with Coldplay). He gets cheers for duelling with himself on keys and guitar at once, and adds some much-needed character to the show.
Bassist Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann comprise two thirds of fusion trio The Aristocrats (completed by another master guitarist, Guthrie Govan). They both play some mind-bending chops and there’s no taking away from their unerring commitment, but when you know what these guys can really do when they cut loose (as briefly here, during Minnemann’s quirky-yet-staggeringly-technical drum solo), they ultimately feel like sidemen, this gig being the day job, the earner.
Maybe it’s easy to get glib about Satriani’s own dizzying talent. He’s never less than world-class, and beneath his perma-shades he never really seems to stare too intently at his strings. The cliché is that he’s at one with his guitar; the reality is he has a massive musical brain, nimble fingers and has spent thousands of hours honing his muscle memory.
Despite a few makeweights (the ponderous Cataclysmic, the meh Luminous Flesh Giants), the new material from Shockwave Supernova hits home – the soaring On Peregrine Wings, the fun Crazy Joe (if you ever thought he’d peaked technically, check this one out), and sweetly lyrical Butterfly And Zebra, but as ever it’s the old staples that elicit the most love – Always With Me Always With You (a tad perfunctory here, truth be told), the sole vocal piece, Blue Dream’s Big Bad Moon (extra points for using his harmonica as a slide), and must-have Surfing With The Alien has us all up on our feet at the close.
You only have to look at his tour schedule for the past few years to appreciate that Joe’s a road-hardened journeyman. Sound systems need taming, and not every date can be a classic, but even at his most workmanlike — deep into a world tour, playing to a modest audience far from his San Francisco home on a dank Welsh November night — he remains a modern phenomenon. We’re lucky to have him.