Continuing our series My Best And Worst Gigs Ever, guitar superstar Joe Satriani talks about one show that stands out in his mind as being the greatest he's ever played – and one that didn't work out so well.
“I could actually pick one gig for both my best and worst performances. It was my first show ever in the Carle Place High School gym, which on the one hand was so thrilling, but at the same time I was so nervous that I barely turned around to the audience. But later, I do remember thinking, ‘That was the greatest thing ever, and that’s what I’m gonna do, and I should never do anything else with my life.’ It was a super moment and it’s a beautiful memory, even if I was terrified at the time.
“But that isn’t what I’m going to call my ‘best gig ever.’ My best – and there’s so many to choose from; I’m very lucky in that regard – happened quite recently, actually, on this past tour we did. It was the last show, in fact.
“We’d had about seven and a half weeks of touring, and the last show was supposed to be with Jeff Beck in Nice, France. A few weeks before the show, we found out that Jeff had injured his back and had to go in for surgery, and he was going to cancel the last week of his shows, which included the one we were to do together.
Monte Carlo gamble
“Our mutual promoter came to me and said, ‘We’re really stuck. Would you be willing to extend your tour another nine days and do a show in Monte Carlo and a couple of these other festivals?’ I said that I thought I convince the band and crew to stay on for another nine or 10 days, but I wanted to know: ‘Are these gigs going to be welcoming to what we do? Because, you know… we’re not Jeff Beck. What we do is a little different.’ They were a lot of jazz festivals, so I was slightly concerned about that.
“They turned out to be really good and pretty interesting – the Monte Carlo show with Marcus Miller and Booker T. And we did some others that were kind of normal. But the last show, the last gig of the tour, was at the Marciac Jazz Festival, which is maybe the most prestigious jazz festival in France. Even though we’d taken on the last week of shows and things went fine – fantastic, even – this gig was a pretty big, serious jazz audience. Plus, we were pretty beat up. We’d done a whole tour, it was the last night – we were toasted and ready to go home.
“As we were about to go on stage, we looked at one another and said, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, no matter how indifferent the crowd is, it’s not going to affect us. We’ve had a great tour.’ We started playing, doing our usual thing, and we looked out and saw not what expected at all: The crowd had a lot of young people. They were on their feet and cheering. It was amazing. And this was in a giant tent with maybe 4,000 people in it, like in the town square. And they had all of these mini tents and video screens, so it covered a huge area. It turned into a real event.
“It was an amazing show all the way to the end. We finish with Crowd Chant and Summer Song – it’s a show that’s designed to get people up on their feet. Everybody was into it. They were having a great time and throwing things onto the stage – funny hats and shirts – so we were able to end the set in a perfect way. It was what you would expect to see at a big rock ‘n’ roll show, not a jazz event. It was a great feeling and really exhilarating to think that we had won over an audience and converted a few people to our point a view, at least for that one evening. We’re just trying to give people a great time, to lift spirits, so we felt as though we’d done that.”
NEXT: The worst gig
“Now, for the worst gig: This is one that happened in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, in the early 2000s. I’d brought over Steve Vai and Eric Johnson to do G3 at a stadium show. During the day, it was a big festival thing; they had Jethro Tull, Sugar Ray – something like 20 acts. For some reason, things ran really late, and we didn’t go on till 4:15 in the morning. It was crazy.
“We were only into the second song, which was Satch Boogie, and I looked over to the side of the stage at Galen Henson, who was then our tour manager and a rhythm guitarist for us on a few songs, and he gave me the throat-slashing and gun-to-the-head signal. I was confused by what it all meant. Usually you see somebody signaling you to cut the set short or draw it out or whatever. Usually signs are related to time. This combination of things coming from Galen was doing was odd.
“All of a sudden, he walked right out on stage, and I thought, ‘Huh, this must be really bad. He’s just throwing all caution to the wind, walking out while I’m playing.’ He came up to me and said, ‘We’ve gotta get out of here or they’re gonna kill us.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And at that moment, the military showed up on both sides of the stage. They had their automatic assault rifles drawn and pointed right at us, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is really serious. This isn’t a joke.’
“I didn’t know why they were there; I had no idea earlier there were any kinds of problems at all. But very quickly it went from a very unusual, late-night performance in a stadium with light rain coming down to having your life threatened. We immediately just dropped everything, and I told everyone, ‘Leave it. Don’t worry about your gear. Just get in any car you can find, and get back to the hotel.’
Don't look back
“That’s exactly what we did. We ran through this gauntlet of military into these cars that were somehow waiting for us and went back to the hotel. We had some noodles and beer – that’s all the restaurant in the hotel had at six in the morning – and then went straight to the airport and left. It was ‘get out of Dodge time,’ for sure. The whole thing was surreal.
“Nobody really got the story straight as to why they had to stop us. The back story to this is that my agent, Wayne Forte, had to come to the gig – I guess he had a feeling about it. So he came from Manhattan to the gig to make sure it went OK. He told me that he was arguing with people from the very beginning of the show, telling them that they couldn’t stop us and that they had to let us keep going, but he couldn’t get the story straight as to why they showed up and why they were so angry – and why we couldn’t play.
“He delayed them as long as he could, but finally they just pushed him aside and filled up the stage. We never went back to that place. We haven’t been back since. I’m hoping we get to play there again sometime before the end of this year, but we’re trying to make sure that something like that never happens again.
“It was the worst gig because you never want to see violence, or even the threat of violence, at a show. But then you add that to the fact that we’d just started playing, and those fans had been there for 15 or 18 hours or whatever, and we were the headliner, the G3 thing. We never got to the G3 jam; I never got past 12 minutes of my own set. I don’t know what the fans thought, whether they were pissed or what. I just remember seeing those guns pointed right at me, then putting my guitar down and telling Mike Manning, my tech, ‘Forget about the gear. We’re gone.’ It was pretty frightening.
“The weird thing is, I don’t think anybody else knew what was going on. In typical fashion, Eric and Steve would have been backstage, changing their clothes and taking a break from rock ‘n’ roll. They probably thought, ‘Joe’s going to play for 45 minutes, so we’ll just hang out.’ The dressing rooms were quite a distance away, inside the sports locker rooms. So they wouldn’t have even heard all of this commotion as it went down. They probably walked out a half hour later going, ‘Hey, where is everybody?’” [Laughs]