Review by Pete Finn for MPM
MPM Tog ‘Statler’ Manson picks me up in our tour bus and we head towards Birmingham, wondering what cocktail of road closures, diversions, and accidents the city is mixing for us this evening.
In all our times attending gigs in Birmingham, we’ve never had a clear run, or come in and gone out the same way. But I suppose we get to see a lot more of the city this way, although this being the case, it’s against a backdrop of flashing blue lights or orange ones atop traffic cones. Tonight, we’re traveling right into the heart of Birmingham, and the Symphony Hall. Once our battle with diversions and traffic cones is completed, we manage to park up with relative ease, and even better it’s free after 18:00, and head into the venue.
The Symphony Hall’s ‘shoebox’ design replicated world-beating concert halls like Vienna’s Musikverein but with a new twist. Like its sister hall at the Meyerson Symphony Centre in Dallas, it features reverse fan shaping – a curved wall at both ends of the hall – throwing the sound back into the centre.
The 2262 seat venue was designed to be flexible – an acoustic marvel that could turn itself from the perfect hall for a symphony orchestra to a rock band. That flexibility was built in through innovations such as the acoustic canopy above the stage which can be raised or lowered to create the best sound depending on the number of performers. Specially padded panels, hidden behind the side seating, pull out on tracks to create the dry acoustic needed for amplified shows and an acoustic curtain covers the stage end of the hall.
The Symphony Hall is also notable for its reverberation chamber, a cavernous space behind the stage end of the building which increases the hall’s volume by 50% when the giant doors are open, creating reverberation of cathedral-like proportions.
During 2001, an organ was installed into the auditorium. The organ has over 6,000 pipes, which stretch over 2½ miles when laid end to end and weigh more than 30 tonnes. It is nearly 65 feet tall and contains wood from over 20 massive trees. The pipes, ranging from 32 foot to 6 inches in length, are made from a range of woods and metals including oak, fir, and pine plus soft metal alloys from tin, lead, and zinc.
This evening, the two Old Muppets are here to see the guitar legend Joe Satriani. This is a first for me, recently I’ve been fortunate to see some fellow six-string greats, in the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Dan Patlansky and Britain’s own King of the Slide Guitar, Troy Redfern. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how Joe Satriani compares, as all the previously mentioned guitarists sing too, whereas a Satriani show is a pure instrumental. I’m looking forward to this one a lot.
Joe Satriani is an American rock guitarist, composer, songwriter, and guitar instructor born in Westbury, New Yorkof Italian descent. Early in his career, he worked as a guitar instructor, with many of his former students achieving fame, including Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett. In 1988, Satriani was recruited by Mick Jagger as lead guitarist for his first solo tour. Satriani briefly toured with Deep Purple, joining shortly after another departure of Ritchie Blackmore from the band in November 1993.
Joe Satriani is the world’s most commercially successful solo guitar performer, with six gold and platinum discs to his credit (including one more gold award for the debut album by his band Chickenfoot which includes Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith), and sales in excess of 10 million copies.
To date Joe Satriani has recorded 19 studio albums, ‘Not of This Earth’ from 1986 being his debut. ‘The Elephants of Mars’ is his most recent, which was released in 2022.
Joe Satriani’s band tonight and who have been with him for the Earth Tour, consists of Joe Satriani (guitar), Bryan Beller (bass), Kenny Aronoff (drums) and Rai Thistlethwayte (keyboards/guitar).
The house lights go out, the band are on stage, Aronoff with his kit centre and up on a riser, to his left Bryan Beller, bass slung over his shoulder, and in front of him Rai Thistlethwayte with his single keyboard. High behind the drum riser there are three huge screens. Out walks Joe Satriani sporting a pair of Terminator shades, and we have lift off.
The show starts with ‘Nineteen Eighty’ taken from ‘Shapeshifting’ released in 2020. It’s high paced with rapid riffs, a real rock soundtrack with thumping beats provided by Kenny Aronoff whilst Bryan Beller is spanking the bass strings. The new ‘The Elephants of Mars’ album provides ‘Sahara’. This is slow and steady, marching pace, the beats are hard, Satriani’s guitar has an almost electronic sound. The pace slows creating atmosphere as Satriani plucks and bends his strings, before concluding the track with some vibrato via his whammy bar.
The screens behind announce the next track, video-game graphics of elephants. It’s the title-track from 2022’s ‘The Elephants of Mars’. The drums and keyboards produce almost a club sound, futuristic. Each band member plays a short break. Satriani and Aronoff slow things down mid-way, Aronoff giving a marching drum beat, before Satriani brings us to a big crescendo finish as he pats the strings.
Joe Satriani addresses his audience, “I’m really glad to have finally made it here”, the response shows the crowd are glad too, he introduces the band to the crowd, then crashes into the riffs for ‘Ice 9’ from ’Surfing With the Alien’ released in 1987. It’s a racing pace with a classic rock background. Joe Satriani encourages the audience to clap, Bryan Beller fires out a brief solo, then Satriani points at Thistlethwayte and the couple have a mini duel.
From the 2018 album ‘What Happens Next’ we have ‘Thunder High on the Mountain’. Rai Thistlethwayte tickles his keys as he brings the track in, a rich organ sound, Aronoff’s pounding beat opens the door for Satriani who comes crashing in to the party. His fingers spread over the fretboard like a giant dancing tarantula.
Thistlethwayte has swapped the keyboard for a guitar, Aronoff’s quick volley of beats begins ‘One Big Rush’ from ‘Flying in a Blue Dream’. The tempo is quick, driven forward by Beller. Satriani’s fingers are a blur. The band have a real good ‘Rock Out’, the Birmingham audience are enjoying this one a lot.
A smiling Satriani moves to his mic and speaks, “Thank you for letting us play this crazy mixed-up set. There are no complaints from those inside the Symphony Hall. Blue is the theme for the next track, blue lighting and Satriani’s black/chrome guitar taking on a blue tinge under the lights. The track is ‘Blue Foot Groovy’ from his most recent album. The sound is bluesy too, this mixes wonderfully with the funky deep bass from Beller. The screen behind depicting bright blue skies. Bryan Beller is down at the front by Satriani, as he’s playing, he’s kicking his foot high in the air (I do notice he’s wearing red boots, not blue ones).
Continuing with blue, next we have the title track from ‘Flying in a Blue Dream’. Satriani holds a squealing note, this track is slower, very deliberate. Satriani leaning back as he plays, like the Birmingham crowd soaking up the experience.
It’s back to the ‘Shapeshifting’ album for ‘Spirits, Ghosts and Outlaws’. Beller is swaying as he starts the track with burbling bass tones. Satriani has changed guitars, this one has the title of his 1988 album ‘Crystal Planet’ on it. The short punchy riffs, accompanied by hard beats carry Satriani’s guitar high above, as he plays the track out. He tells us, “The ending is 10-times longer than the song”, judging by the audience’s reaction, I don’t think they mind at all.
The recent ‘The Elephants of Mars’ is visited again for ‘Faceless’. It starts slow and moody, this is gentle, the band considerate in their support. The crowd is silent, I look around and many have their eyes closed, feeling the music and the amazing sounds. Satriani picks up the tempo for ‘Crystal Planet’ from the 1988 album of the same name. This is hard-hitting and heavy. He’s leaning back and marching on the spot as his fingers fly across the strings.
Without pausing, we’re straight into ‘Summer Song’ from ‘The Extremist’ released in 1992. The stage lighting red and yellow, this is another quick one, with a hard driving beat delivered by Kenny Aronoff. The band are enjoying this and are rocking out, leading to a big finish. Joe Satriani introduces the band, and then they leave the stage as set one concludes, the Symphony Hall audience show their appreciation with cheers, claps and whistles, that has gone down very well.
When Joe Satriani plays his guitar, imagine the notes are like jigsaw pieces, he carefully places them in exactly the correct position to produce the most wonderful picture.
After a 15-minute break we’re back in our seats. The house lights go out, the anticipation builds, a group of spotlights light up Kenny Aronoff on his drum riser, a quick cymbal crash and he starts his drum solo, his arms are moving that fast when the strobe lights flash, they look stationary. He finishes to a huge cheer before the rest of the band return. It’s the pulsating ‘Energy’ taken from ‘What Happens Next’. It’s hard and heavy, taking no prisoners, the lightning bolts appearing on the screen I’m sure are generated by Satriani’s fingers as the caress the strings and frets.
Satriani invites us aboard a time machine, we’re heading back to “The crazy 70’s” and New York City for ‘E 104th St NYC 1973’ from ‘The Elephants of Mars’, a fusion of blues, jazz and funk that soothes and rustles at the same time. Satriani is crouching down as he plays; the steady heart beat is provided by Bryan Beller as he plucks the fat bass strings.
The spotlight is turned onto Rai Thistlethwayte, he is stood behind his keyboard the other members leave the stage and he plays a keyboard solo, an exotic cocktail of styles, tempos and sounds. The crowd show their appreciation and Thistlethwayte reciprocates.
The others return, then from his self-titled 1995 album, Satriani and the band give us ‘Cool #9’. Satriani and Beller match each other’s riffs and beats. This is out of the jazz/funk drawer, Aronoff plays a steady Charlie Watts like drumbeat. The tempo slowly quickens as Satriani has his fingers dancing along the fretboard. Beller and Satriani lead the crowd in a sing-back chant of “Hey, Hey”. Joe Satriani finishes the song playing his guitar one-handed.
‘Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me’ is from ‘Shapeshifting’. Chugging beats carry a Satriani guitar riff that is short and quick, this evolves as he brings in a Scottish Fling sound, mixed with a Muse style break. The combination sounds amazing. Maybe, each of the different sounds represents a character in the title. It’s very effective.
Bryan Beller’s pounding bass introduces the title track from 2020’s ‘Shapeshifting’. Satriani has this guitar singing in harmony. The sound rich and smooth. Kenny Aronoff keeping everyone in control, this is clever as it sounds like an improvised jam, with the band playing with their hearts. This is illustrated by the way Satriani is cradling his guitar, as if holding a baby. An absolute belter of a track.
The screens behind the band are showing droplets of water. To complete a trio of ‘Shapeshifting’ tracks is ‘Teardrops’. This is slow and atmospheric, Satriani and his guitar are centre stage. Now, we have the wonderfully titled ‘Luminous Flesh Giants’ from the ‘Joe Satriani’ release. Beller powers out a heavy bass beat, Satriani has his guitar purring by its side, the stage lighting deep red with bursts of yellow. Eloquent rock riffs address the Symphony Hall audience, the sound gets heavier and darker, something of a nod maybe, to local legends Black Sabbath. My favourite track of the evening.
2004’s reflective ‘Is There Love in Space?’ provides ‘If I Could Fly’, Satriani, illuminated by spotlights produces an electronic style intro, the band quick to join, Thistlethwayte is guitar shod too. I like the sound of this, a bit Foo Fighters played slower. The tempo picks up its feet and we have a proper boogie tune. The band lead the audience in clapping along.
“We’re so grateful you’ve waited so long for us, you’re a fantastic audience” says Satriani. Then it’s ‘Always With Me, Always With You’ from ’Surfing With the Alien’. Kenny Aronoff is shaking a rattle and hitting the cowbell. Satriani plays crisp clear notes with great care and affection. This is a delicate and emotional piece.
Staying with 1987’s ’Surfing With the Alien’ we have ‘Satch Boogie’, a full-on rock monster. The crowd are out of their seats. This track has bounce and fun in abundance, as Satriani’s hands dance around his guitar neck. The toe-tappers and head-nodders are giving it their all. The band play out to a big finish. The crowd are cheering as Joe Satriani thanks the audience before once again introducing his band and they all then leave the stage.
It’s not too long before the band return to the Symphony Hall stage for their encore. They start with ‘Crowd Chant’ from 2006’s ‘Super Colossal’. Aronoff’s beat and the band get the crowd clapping. Satriani powers out a riff, the crowd know what to do and sing back. The atmosphere inside the hall is fantastic, each time Satriani plays a riff the crowd echo it back to him.
The show closes with the title track from ‘Surfing With The Alien’. This is a foot-to-the-floor rock track, the screens showing a cartoon of the silver surfer. The band are moving around the stage as they play, grinning at each other. Kenny Aronoff’s drum roll leads us to a big finish as Satriani points around the auditorium at the applauding crowd. The band throw souvenirs into the crowd before lining up and taking a bow, then waving they leave the stage.
Satriani’s playing is extremely technical, but it is also full of passion, and because of this it appeals not only to musicians of all levels, but to anyone who likes music that contains intricate, yet harmonious guitar riffs.
Over 120-minutes of instrumentals, did I miss the vocals? Yes and no, I’ve always enjoyed a song, the learning of the lyrics, the understanding of the meaning behind them, and the ability to join in. But, some of the finest pieces of music ever written have no words, from the classic composers like Mozart and Wagner, soundtrack writers such as John Williams or Henry Mancini, to the modern-day composers and performers like Joe Satriani.
Maybe, the biggest compliment I can bestow about tonight’s show, was that at the end and without thinking, impulsively, I was stood on my feet applauding and cheering along with everyone else inside the Symphony Hall.
Setlist: Nineteen Eighty; Sahara; The Elephants of Mars; Ice 9; Thunder High on the Mountain; One Big Rush; Blue Foot Groovy; Flying in a Blue Dream; Spirits, Ghosts and Outlaws; Faceless; Crystal Planet; Summer Song; Energy; E 104th St NYC 1973; Cool #9; Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me; Shapeshifting; Teardrops; Luminous Flesh Giants; If I Could Fly; Always With Me, Always With You; Satch Boogie; Crowd Chant; Surfing With The Alien.
Photography by Manny Manson for MPM