It's a typical, bone-cuttingly cold December afternoon in Boston as Joe Satriani darts into the House Of Blues for soundcheck. A few hours remain until showtime, and the cavernous venue is nearly empty, save for crew members who mill about, and it's drafty, too. Satch, dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, leather jacket, along with a scarf and ski cap, walks on stage briskly. Smiling broadly, he shakes my hand firmly and, taking in his surroundings, says with a slight trace of awe in his voice, "I've been here before."
No, Satch isn't getting all metaphysical. He means it - he's played this very stage years ago, back when it was a smaller joint called the Avalon. "Actually, I might have done a few shows here," he says. "You know, Boston's always been a great town for me, so I'm thinking tonight should go well."
Judging from the long line of loyal fans who are already stretched around the block outside, a Beantown blow-out is all but in the bag. In fact, Satriani's entire Wormhole Tour, which just concluded a European run and is slated to crisscross the States till the end of January, has been a sold-out smash since it began last October. Even so, Satriani admits that no performance is a given. "Whether it's a certain connection with the band or the audience, or even just a different perspective on a song I might have played 100 times already, I'm always reaching for something."
Pre-soundcheck, Satriani warms up his fingers on a prototype of his Ibanez JS2400. © Joe Bosso
Speaking of reaching, the night before, during a concert at Toronto's Massey Hall, an overzealous fan took things a little too far by jumping up on stage and making off with Satch's setlist (the guitarist discusses the event in the video on the page three). "That's been the only real glitch so far," he says. "Everything else has been pretty terrific."
With Satriani's band (drummer Jeff Campitelli, bassist Allen Whitman, keyboardist Mike Keneally and rhythm guitarist/tour manager Galen Henson) due to arrive soon, the guitarist offers me an up-close-and-personal look at the guitars, effects and amps he's been using on the road (see the video above, with photos and lists on the following pages). "I don't travel with trucks and trucks of guitars and gear," he says. "To be quite honest, I'm always trying to bring as little with me as I possibly can. One less thing to worry about is one less headache."
Soundcheck time arrives, and right on cue the musicians take their places and launch into a pulverizing version of Ice 9. Next up is a majestic Flying In A Blue Dream, with Campitelli and Whitman locking into a rich, penetrating groove, while Henson and Keneally add glorious textures and flourishes.
If Satriani is saving his best for the paying crowd, you wouldn't know it from the galvanizing force of his musicianship. With eyes closed in deep concentration, he fills the air with mesmerizing melody lines that are more like vistas and spine-tingling solos that achieve maximum lift-off. The engaging, gritty blues-rocker Big Bad Moon receives a brief but spirited run-through (hearing Satch sing is always a rare treat, to say nothing of his superb harp skills), and then it's time to break out the acoustics for a positively transplendent take on the Spanish-flavored Andalusia (see the video above).
Satisfied with the House Of Blues' sonic properties, Satriani indicates to the band that soundcheck is over. He turns to walk to the offstage work station of his longtime guitar tech Mike Manning, but Manning is already right in front of him. "Check it out!" Manning beams, showing off a neatly lettered, brand spanking new setlist. "All right!" Satch exclaims. He takes the list and gives it a once-over. The song titles are big and bold - Satriani could easily read them from six or seven feet away if he had to. "Nice job, Mike," he says. "Hopefully, nobody'll steal this one."
Satch makes a few minor adjustments to the Proctavia. © Joe Bosso
The clock is ticking, but before the main audience is let inside, Satriani attends a special meet-and-greet with 'Club Joe' premium ticket-holders. Meanwhile, I have to catch a train back to New York City, so I make arrangements to see the show a few days later at the Best Buy Theater in the Big Apple. It is there that Satriani and I hook up backstage to talk more about the tour, how the expanded band lineup is working out, and whether we'll be seeing the return of Chickenfoot in 2011 (see the video interview on the next page). Once our Q&A has wrapped, Satch opens a door that leads to a VIP/ media hang-out area. "I'm really looking forward to playing tonight," he says. "New York's like coming home for me. And it's snowing outside! Time to get festive."
Moments later, Satriani and his band do just that, ripping through a 23-song set that mixes classics with new cuts and has the packed house on its feet. For the final encore, Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci comes out for a razzle-dazzle rendition of Summer Song. (Like Satch, Petrucci is a born-and-bred Long Islander, so that's two local heroes appearing tonight.) Outside, the temps are hovering in the teens, but inside, with sparks flying off the guitar masters' fretboards, things are hotter than July.
Satriani's guitars lined up in Mike Manning's work station: the Ibanez JS2400 prototype, production model JS2400, JS1200 with Sustaniac pickup and an Ibanez JSA 10BK acoustic. © Joe Bosso
Joe Satriani's effects pedalboard: (top, l to r) Voodoo Lab Pedal Power AC supply, Vox Ice 9 overdrive, Vox Satchurator distortion, Voodoo Pedal Power 2 Plus power supply, Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe Jr, Radial JDI passive direct box, Pedal Power 2 Plus (bottom, l to r) DigiTech Whammy pedal, 2 Vox Time Machine delay pedals, Marshall JVM 410 footswitch, Boss Super Chorus, Voodoo Lab Proctavia, DigiTech IPS-33B Super Harmony Machine footswitch, Vox Big Bad Wah pedal. © Joe Bosso
Good times! Mike Manning and Satriani show off the new setlist. © Joe Bosso
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