ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 18, 2000
By Steve Newton
I’ve yet to be bitten by the techno bug. You won’t find any discs by the Chemical Brothers or Crystal Method in my collection, or any stashes of Ecstasy in my dresser drawer. But after listening to the new Joe Satriani CD, Engines of Creation, I’m starting to warm up to a futuristic electro vibe. Gone are the rollicking, metallicized guitar/bass/drums workouts that Satriani established himself with in the late ’80s. The new century’s Satch still wields a killer axe, but he tempers his boggling fret freakouts with his own keyboards and programming, along with coproducer Eric Caudieux’s keys, bass, programming, and editing. (Caudieux is best-known for his expert digital editing and programming work alongside famed producer Trevor Horn.)
Traditional-minded rock-guitar fans who worry about the human, fingers-on-strings element getting phased out in Satriani’s current space-age leanings shouldn’t get too agitated. It’s still there. And besides, he’s the kind of guy who might just turn around and release an acoustic-guitar album next. “Ya never know,” says the virtuoso string bender from a New Orleans tour stop. “Ya never know with me. I tend to like to change a lot.”
If Satriani were to pull an about-face and follow Engines with a low-tech, live-on-the-back-porch Dobro showcase, for example, it would surely feature some wicked slide-playing. His performance on the new disc’s bluesy “Champagne?” shows him to be a natural with the metal or glass cylinder. “I really do like playing slide,” he imparts. “I don’t do it very often, so it’s something that when the chance comes to do it, I have to be careful and do my best to try and do it well.”
Whether via bottleneck or bare fingers, Satriani has been doing things well ever since blasting onto the scene with 1987’s Surfing With the Alien, which went on to sell two million copies, a formidable number for an instrumental-rock release. The members of Deep Purple were so taken by his six-string skills that they offered him the job Ritchie Blackmore abandoned in 1994, but although Satriani toured with the band for a while, he declined the offer to become a fully fledged member.
“I didn’t want to be in the position to have to follow Ritchie Blackmore for the rest of my career,” he points out. “That’s what the gig is, plain and simple. Ritchie put his stamp on that band, and I just didn’t feel like being the guy who had to follow it up. Plus I’ve got a solo career, so it wasn’t like I needed work or something. So it was a purely artistic decision, and difficult to make, because those guys were really great. It’s very hard to walk away from an offer like that.”
Shortly after Satriani turned down the position, it was filled by another American picker of monstrous talent, former Dixie Dregs fret burner Steve Morse. Those familiar with Morse’s uncanny technique and progressive approach to rootsy fusion music might have thought him an unlikely (i.e., overqualified) candidate to take over the “Smoke on the Water” duties, but Satch figures he fits the bill quite nicely.
“I knew that he was one of the players that they were thinking about asking,” he reveals, “and I certainly gave him my full endorsement. I’ve known Steve for quite a while, and he’s an amazing guitarist, I mean really amazing. So I thought it would be a really great match, and I think it has been.”
When Satriani mentions that he’s putting together another G3 tour for this fall—the last one having been a guitar freak’s wet dream that put him on a bill with the likes of Steve Vai and Eric Johnson—it’s fun to ponder whether or not Morse, if his Purple obligations allowed it, would be on the shortlist of performers this time around. That’s when Satriani’s favoured reply of “Ya never know” makes its noncommittal return. But one thing’s for certain: you won’t see German guitarist Michael Schenker up there trading licks with Satch. At the suggestion of its European promoters, the former UFO and Scorpions guitarist was enlisted for part of the last G3 Tour, but he didn’t win favour with Satriani.
“Against my better judgment I went ahead with it,” he says, “and it was a disaster. There was a time when he was really quite an impressive player, but unfortunately, at least while he was with us, those days seemed to be behind him.”
Some rockers have been known to lose their magic touch over the years, but Satriani isn’t one of them. Though his current music is less heavy, he still plays with the same level of passion that made Surfing With the Alien so popular. And for those who never tire of returning to the furious shredding of Alien ear burners like “Crushing Day” and “Hill of the Skull”, that album—and everything else Satriani released prior to the ’97 G3: Live in Concert CD—has recently been remastered. Satriani says that the Alien album is particularly improved by the touching-up.
“It sounds almost exactly like what it sounded like when we made it in the studio,” he claims. “See, when that record was first mastered it was the beginning of CD-mastering technology, so it was barely a good representation of what the album actually sounded like. Since then, of course, there’s been a revolution in digital music, and this really made a fantastic difference to the sound of that record.”
Here’s hoping Satriani pulls out the odd number from Alien—the ravishing “Always With Me, Always With You” would be a welcome choice—when he plays the Vogue on Saturday (May 20), accompanied by veteran bass god Stuart Hamm and long-time drummer Jeff Campitelli, with Caudieux on rhythm guitar and keys. And don’t expect Satriani to be fiddling with pesky programming devices and tape machines on-stage, because he isn’t concerned with precisely re-creating Engines of Creation’s techno-based tunes.
“We just take a number of the songs and find new ways to do them,” he says. “I find that a more interesting way of doing it, because then it gives you the feeling that you’re sort of in the game with the record. You can still come up with new ideas about it; it’s not like it’s something that’s finished, in the past, and you just have to replay it. You find the essence of the song, really, and you can kind of take it from there, and then you find that it’s all just music.”