Guitarist Joe Satriani letting go of on-stage persona
Joe Satriani isn't trying to be like the late comedian/actor Robin Williams these days. But the guitar great remembers a random encounter he had with Williams that illustrates, at least to an extent, a process he's gone through in evaluating his public and private personality traits.
He plays Greensburg's Palace Theatre on Feb. 11.
Living near an elementary school in San Francisco at the time, Satriani and his wife were in their garage one morning.
“We hear what sounds like an absolute crazy person walking up the street. It really sounded like a crazy, deranged person, right?” Satriani recounts. “So we kind of froze and looked and we were waiting for this person to come into view.
“All of a sudden who comes walking by, but it's Robin Williams walking his son to school. Of course, he's entertaining his son like you've seen him in music and television shows,” the guitarist says. “It reminds me that he was such a wonderful person and a great performer, but I suppose there wasn't a line there. If he was doing that at 7:30 in the morning with his son just to put a smile on his son's face, that's pretty remarkable. So it comes to mind when I think about that whole thing about performers have two lives, one for home and one for the stage.”
For many years, Satriani saw a marked difference in who he was in private and how he tried to come across on stage.
Like many musicians, he was quite shy when he first started touring.
To help him come out of his shell, Satriani over the years developed a series of on-stage personas — the latest he named Shockwave Supernova — that allowed him to be a flashier performer who embraced stunts like playing the guitar with his teeth in order to entertain audiences.
But especially in making his 2015 album, “Shockwave Supernova” and then touring to promote that release, Satriani began to question whether his persona was overtaking him. The concluding song on that album, “Goodbye Supernova,” hinted at the emerging conflict. And then Satriani got to further examine his alter ego when his son, ZZ, joined the touring to film a documentary, finding his father at a place where he was trying to reconcile his on-stage persona with his natural traits and personality.
In the end, Satriani found a way forward.
“I think one of the things (ZZ Satriani) discovered is it wasn't so much a discarding of an alter ego as it was me accepting that it was really part of me all along,” he says.
Satriani put his decision to express a truer version of himself into practice in writing for his newly released 16th studio album, “What Happens Next.”
One factor that helped him focus on where to go musically was playing the straight-forward hard rock music he makes with Sammy Hagar, Chad Smith (drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Michael Anthony (former bassist in Van Halen) in the side group Chickenfoot.
“It was just one of those things where you go ‘That's where I want to be. That's what I want to do. I've got to write material that is more natural feeling, that has more elements of that rock and soul and less elements of clever progressive rock arrangement ideas,'” Satriani said.
Recruiting Smith and bassist Glenn Hughes (of Deep Purple fame) to form his studio band, Satriani dispensed almost entirely with the progressive rock influences and science fiction motifs that had flavored his past several albums and pursued a sound rooted in rock and soul. This pushed Satriani to look more inward and use his songs, which remain all instrumental, to express more basic human emotions.
The result is a potent album with songs that are more concise and direct in their emotions, but still feature plenty of expressive and accomplished playing. Several songs, including “Energy,” “Catbot” and “Headrush” are among the hardest rocking — but still catchy — songs Satriani has created. At the same time, tunes like “Smooth Soul,” “Righteous” and “Forever and Ever,” dial back on the voltage and showcase a more fluid and highly melodic feel that draws strongly from soul and rock and brings a nice balance to the album.
The first round of touring behind “What Happens Next” will find Satriani joined by Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci and Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen for the latest edition of his G3 tour. Each guitarist will play a set running 45 minutes to an hour and then the trio will perform together to finish the night.
The G3 tour first happened in 1996, and past outings have found Satriani joined by such top-tier guitarists as Steve Vai, Petrucci, Eric Johnson and Robert Fripp.
The wild card on this year's tour would seem to be Collen. Unlike other G3 artists, Collen is not known for extended soloing or complex technique largely because Def Leppard's songs are centered around fairly tight arrangements and vocal melodies.
But Satriani said after getting to know Collen at his G4 guitar camp last summer and seeing Collen play, he knew he wanted to have him join this year's G3 tour.
Alan Sculley is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.