Wednesday 17th May 2023
The London Palladium
The question you have to ask yourself when watching a virtuoso like Joe Satriani is how many times can you be blown away by the speed and ingenuity of his playing? Can too many jaw-dropping moments cause permanent facial damage? As a guitar player you can only admire the quality of musicianship on display, even while you’re wandering whether you can have too much of a good thing.
The initial effect of the opening numbers of his set was like experiencing a musical blitzkrieg, a high intensity sonic overload delivered with a volcanic energy. He’s not just a nimble fingered guitar technician but also a magician conjuring up a range of explosive sounds from his guitar as if channelling some alien cosmic force. It’s a really tough act to deliver; non-stop instrumentals over a long evening, twenty-five songs in total played with a fearsome commitment.
He was aided by a fantastic band. Kenny Aronoff has played with a million people but I’d only caught him once before, pounding the drums with the awesome Supersonic Blues Machine at Ramblin’ Man. To say he is a powerhouse is a massive understatement. The variety of his playing was really engaging but just watching him beat those drums into submission was exhausting. Just don’t ever get into an arm wrestling match with him. He began the second set by himself with a solo performance that was stunning. Let’s face it, there’s only so much percussive solo powerplay that you can take. A little is great but any longer can quickly become a drudge. Needless to say, his extended solo was a masterclass and proved an exception to the rule.
The more recent albums by Satriani seem to offer more variety in the range of sounds and influences showcased, and unsurprisingly he featured a lot of numbers from his two most recent studio releases, 2022’s ‘Elephant of Mars’ (perhaps his best to date) and 2020’s ‘Shapeshifting’ in the long set, which were interspersed with a number of classic, older and fans’ fave numbers.
Opener ‘Nineteen Eighty’ from ‘Shapeshifting’ is a fast moving number and was a template for much that was to follow, featuring super-fast repeated modulating runs, changing to a great Rock riff, a memorable doubled rising phrase, a flowing series of notes high up the neck, a different doubled riff, a repetition of the 100 mile an hour intro, multiple guitar parts and strong bass riffs. The kitchen sink thrown in! Fabulous!
There was obviously homogeneity to the playing throughout the night - one of the drawbacks of using a ton of effects pedals to shape the guitar tone is that everything has a processed feel. The advantage though is that these can provide a wide variety of tones and different effects to provide a different sonic quality. ‘Sahara’ from ‘Elephant of Mars’ being an example of how a range of tones on a slower, atmospheric number, provided a contrast on the evening. This began with volume surges on a chord, which moved into an Indian scale influenced riff, backed by thumping drums, changed to a crunchy riff, then a series of melodic runs, dropped down to floating almost bluesy melodic solo, before moving into wig out territory with some squealing guitar.
The set was balanced between faster and slower paced numbers, a change of pace that occurred within individual songs as in the title track to ‘Elephant of Mars’ where the powerful, but slightly aimless playing of the main part of the song dropped down to a lovely melodic and dreamy middle section, before returning to the mayhem of the central section.
The keyboard sounds of Rai Thistlewayte added a nice counterpoint to the guitar work, particular on ‘Faceless’ another strong number from the most recent album. ‘E 104th St NYC 1973’ from the same album provided a different vibe with its jazzy groove, bass to the fore and space for the guitar to explore in.
Most songs contained a number of competing melodic phrases around which the guitarist would explode into frenetically energetic fast runs, often ending up at some impossibly high fret that seemed to be only achievable in his imagination. While each song often contained a million notes they individually didn’t overstay their welcome and with twenty five songs played the evening rolled along at a pace.
Bassist Brian Beller provided a visual foil to the stage roaming Satriani as well as locking in with the thunderous beats of Kenny Aronoff. As the set progressed, older songs popped up like the title tracks to 1989’s ‘Flying in a Blue Dream’ and the previous year’s ‘Crystal Planet’. Inevitably trademark numbers like ‘Satch Boogie’ and the incredible ‘Crowd Chant’ featured, the latter one of two explosive encores that finished with the title track to his classic breakthrough album, ‘Surfing with the Alien’. Joe Satriani may not be an alien but his playing is at times other-worldly.