Joe Satriani, Steve Vai on their co-headline concert: A Benefit For Cliff II

Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, among others, will join forces for A Benefit For Cliff II. © Amy Harris/Corbis (Vai) and © Scott D. Smith/Retna Ltd./Corbis (Satriani)

"It doesn't take much for me to want to jump on stage and play with Steve," says Joe Satriani. "All the concerts we've done together have been wonderfully unique experiences. But this show we're going to do, I think it has the potential to top everything we've ever done."

Steve Vai agrees: "Playing with Joe is always something I look forward to. We each have our own skills and personalities as guitarists. But when we get together, a magic happens that is unlike anything else in the world. I'd say this concert that's coming up could be one that we all remember our whole lives."

The concert Satriani and Vai are talking about is called A Benefit For Cliff II (an earlier show was staged in 2006) and will take place on 10 July at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles, California. Along with Dweezil Zappa, Orianthi, Brendon Small, Tony MacAlpine and an array of special guest stars, the two guitar legends are helping to raise money for music industry veteran and friend Cliff Cultreri pay his medical bills.

Cliff Cultreri is the music executive who is credited with 'discovering' Satriani and Vai, as well as many other popular recording artists while working at Relativity Records and Koch Entertainment. Today, he is suffering from a host of auto-immune and connective-tissue disorders that are simultaneously attacking his immune system, a 1 in 100 million occurrence that causes severe pain and physical debilitation.

"Cliff is very, very important to both Joe and myself," says Vai. "In many ways, we wouldn't be where we are today without Cliff. So anything we can do to help him, we're there."

Tickets (including VIP and Platinum VIP packages) for A Benefit For Cliff II can be purchased at either this page on Joe Satriani's website or this page on Steve Vai's site.

A webcast of the 10 July concert is in the planning stages and final details will be announced in advance of the show. Satriani and Vai hope that sharing this unique concert online will encourage fans across the globe to add their own donations to the cause. Information as it develops can be found right here.

Satriani, Vai and others have graciously donated various items to be auctioned. Among these items is a Steve Vai signed 20th Anniversary JEM guitar commemorating the entire line of Ibanez guitars. Steve used this guitar for the duration of his 2007 String Theories Tour and on the Grammy-nominated song Now We Run, featured on the platinum award-winning DVD Where The Wild Things Are. Other auction items include a Joe Satriani JS1000 guitar with personalized art, a Joe Satriani JS1200 guitar autographed by all the musicians, and a Paul Gilbert autographed guitar. The online auction is scheduled to run 5 July - 15 July and information is available here.

MusicRadar sat down recently with both Joe Satriani and Steve Vai to discuss A Benefit for Cliff II. In addition, we talked about their relationship with Cliff Cultreri, his condition, and how the two guitarists still feel about playing together after all these years.

Are we at liberty to say who the special guests are, or do you want to keep them a secret until they walk on stage?

Joe Satriani: "Sure, we can talk about them. Let's see, there's Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck [Vai laughs], Pete Townshend…former President Clinton, who's bringing his sax… Just make it up, Joe, make it up!" [laughs]

Well, I don't think I can top those names. But hey, whatever helps sell tickets - although I don't think you guys are going to need any help in that area.

Steve Vai: "Hopefully, that'll be the case. But we do want to keep the surprise guests just that - a surprise. Things do get out there before we want them to, but we'd like to make the show as special as possible."

This is the second benefit concert you've done for Cliff, and of course, you've toured together in G3. Will this follow the same format of some of those shows?

Satriani: "Gee, I don't know… I guess we'd better start thinking of that, Steve, huh?"

Vai: "Yeah, I guess so. I'm in the process of recording right now. Fortunately, I'll be able to use the band that I used on my last tour for this show. For my part, I think I'll do some of my favorite songs and a lot of things that Cliff was involved with when they came out. It'll be a simple set, but one that I think my fans will really enjoy."

You mentioned songs that Cliff was involved with. What would some of those be?

Vai: "There's quite a few, but I would say from Alien Love Secrets there's Tender Surrender. And from Passion And Warfare, there's For The Love Of God… I have to go through them all. Cliff was a big supporter of mine and championed so much of what I've done."

Steve, your friend Orianthi will be one of the guests. Will you two play Highly Strung?

Vai: "We won't be doing that. Ori will probably come out during the jam… You know, we haven't even plotted this out!" [laughs]

Well, that's what we can do right now. I have a pad and pencil.

Satriani: "All right, let's go!" [laughs]

Vai: "Yeah, let's figure out the jam songs. Joe…what should we do?"

Satriani: "For my set, I'll be using the Wormhole band minus [rhythm guitarist] Galen Henson, who's out on tour with Toto right now. So I think I'll be doing a bit of the Wormhole set plus some greatest hits, which will be a two-and-a-half hour show right there… I guess I need to whittle this whole thing down. I think, when all is said and done, we're looking at two one-hour sets from Steve and myself, and then everything else that happens fills out the rest of the night. It'll be a long concert, that's for sure. I'm really looking forward to what everybody else will do. Their sets might be more figured out than mine and Steve's, who knows?" [laughs]

Of course, for the majority of the audience, the highlight of the show will be when the two of you perform together.

Satriani: "For the three or four people left in the audience, perhaps. Steve, I'm hoping you might have some ideas here…"

[laughs] Vai: "Well, I was really hoping we could do In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

Why - because it has a 10-minute drum solo? [Satriani and Vai both laugh]

Vai: "Precisely! You know, we really have to figure out what we're going to do. We don't have much time."

Satriani: "Now's actually the perfect time. We just finished mixing the Chickenfoot record, and I've got some touring to do, starting in late June, so figuring out this set is a big priority."

Certainly a constant of a lot of G3 shows has been a generous helping of Hendrix material. Do you think you'll be doing some Jimi songs?

Vai: "It's a good idea."

Satriani: "Absolutely. I don't see why we wouldn't. Both Steve and I have recently done some Experience Hendrix tours, so it seems like a given."

Vai: "I just got off one last week. They're a lot of fun. In many ways, they're like little musical vacations. I get to go on stage with a bunch of terrific artists and play Hendrix… What can be better?"

Cliff Cultreri heard Steve Vai's Flex-Able and said, "I love this record, I think there's something there." © RADU SIGHETI/Reuters/Corbis

Let's talk about Cliff Cultreri. What is the status of his medical condition? And what exactly is he suffering from, does it have a name?

Satriani: "It's called Vasculitis."

Vai: "Vasculitis was the first thing that we knew of, and then that led to other complications, unfortunately."

Satriani: "Vasculitis is what you call an 'umbrella disease,' and the deeper you go into it you learn that there are more terms. What we put in the press release was 'Auto-Immune and Connective-Tissue Disorders.' In a way, if you have to make a chart, you'd say 'Vasculitis,' and unfortunately there are something like 100 other conditions that fall under that term."

Vai: "It attacks the ends of the nerves, at various points and in all kinds of ways. And then, when the nerves grow back, it's even more painful. It's a very excruciating condition.

"But you know, Cliff is a trooper. If the sky were falling, he'd still find a reason to smile. He's a real workaholic, too. He keeps very active and doesn't let himself be ruled by his disease. He gets up in the morning and he still works. He brokers high-end guitars - he's very involved with these high-end guitar makers - and he just loves it. I know he can't move at the same pace as he used to, and he gets very frustrated. But he doesn't let this thing get the best of him. He's an extraordinary guy."

Now Steve, even though you began your professional career with Frank Zappa in the late '70s, it took Cliff to give you your real start as a solo artist.

Vai: "That's right. I had made a bit of a name for myself playing and recording with Frank. But that didn't mean the doors to record companies were swinging open for me. But I was young and fascinated with recording, so I bought a multi-track machine and basically made this weird record that I called Flex-Able. I tried to shop it around, but nobody wanted to know about it. It was too out-there, too bizarre, too…whatever. Nobody cared! [laughs]

"Meanwhile, during this time, I did some research, and I learned about record distributors, that they needed a constant supply of product. Now, distribution companies didn't necessary sign artists per se, but I sent a bunch of copies of Flex-Able around, and lo and behold, one day I got a call from a guy named Cliff Cultreri, who was then working at a distribution company called Important Records. He was a total guitar freak, loved guitar players, and he told me, 'I love this record, I think there's something there, and I'd like to buy 1,000 copies from you and see if I can sell them.' That sounded pretty good to me, especially when he told me he'd give me four dollars for each album - that's a pretty great royalty.

"This led to another 1,000 and another 1,000 and another 1,000 - and it kept on going. Eventually, it sold in the hundreds of thousands, so it's been an astounding success. Cliff gave me a real shot in this business, absolutely. He had a vision, and he looked out for me as artist. He's unlike anybody in the record business I ever met. And he's just a wonderful guy, too. He loves to talk about music and guitars. What other music executive would go on and on about a new distortion pedal? [laughs] None that I know. He was always in this business for the right reasons."

"Cliff really allowed me to pursue my creativity," says Satriani. © JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT/epa/Corbis

Eventually, Important started its own label, Relativity. At that point, Joe, you were introduced to Cliff via Steve, right?

Satriani: "That's right. I'd sent a cassette of Not Of This Earth to Steve, and he called me up and said, 'There's this crazy guy who signed me to release Flex-Able, and if he's crazy enough to do that, then he's probably crazy enough to release Not Of This Earth. [laughs] Steve set things in motion. I met Cliff, who turned out to be the greatest guy, very unlike anybody I'd ever encountered. He was nutty, he was a New Yorker, he liked all the same music that I liked. It was as if we were destined to meet. But yeah, it did take Steve hooking up with Cliff first for me to get my chance, and of course, I'm very grateful for that.

"Cliff really allowed me to pursue my creativity. I wasn't looking to do a kind of production and distribution deal where I had to look out after lots of aspects of the business myself. I just wanted to go about being an insane artist, and Cliff gave me the freedom to do that."

Vai: "What's really interesting here is that, during this time, I had joined Alcatrazz, who were signed to Capitol. See, I wasn't signed to Relativity at this point - this is when Relativity was coming together, so they were still basically Important Record Distributors, and I had only signed a one-off distribution deal with Important. So Capitol offered me a solo deal, which appealed to me for all of the reasons Joe said - I could just concentrate on making music and I wouldn't have to worry about all of these other aspects of running a company. But Capitol heard the record I made, which turned out to be Passion And Warfare, and they didn't know what to do with it. They were like, 'We don't know what this is, it's too…whatever. We'll put it out, but we can tell you right now, we're not going to promote it at all.'

"Of course, that's not what I wanted to hear, so I said, 'Thanks but no thanks.' I was able to get off the label and take the record with me, and I went to Cliff with it. At this point, Relativity was in motion. Cliff kind of scratched his head when he heard it, to be honest [laughs], but he believed in me and trusted me, so he released it. And that was the start of my relationship with Relativity and how Passion And Warfare was put out there."

Satriani: "That's the thing about Cliff: Whereas other record execs would push you to do something more commercial or what was just like what other artists were doing, he'd tell you to go further with your own vision. He really liked daring artists who were confident and would deliver something that was unique. So he was the opposite of 99 percent of all the label guys out there. Another thing about Cliff was, he wouldn't bullshit you. Whereas other label guys might be tight-lipped with an artist about what was going on with their record and things like that, Cliff would tell you straight-up what was happening. For both me and Steve, Cliff was really our guy on the inside. We were all in it together."

Let me switch gears back to the show. The two of you have played guitar together since you were teenagers. When you play together now, what's the experience like?

Vai: "Let me answer that, but to do so I have to go back to the beginning. When you're young and very impressionable, there's things that have a profound impact on you, and when they cut right to the heart of what's most important to you, the effect can stay with you your whole life. For me, the guitar was this unbelievably beautiful and cool thing that I just loved.

"To live in the same town as Joe was incredible. Here was this guy who was very close to my age, who lived nearby, he could play, and he had the same passion for the guitar as I did. What are the chances of that happening? Pretty slim. I think it was my destiny that Joe would guide me and teach me things that I still carry with me to this day. My lessons with Joe were so important to me; they were sacred. We formed a very intimate relationship. Our lessons gradually took on the format of jam sessions. Joe was still my teacher, but he became my very close friend, someone I could be comfortable around."

Will Eric Johnson be one of the unannounced special guests at A Benefit For Cliff II? Satch and Vai aren't telling...

"I still feel that way. When we play together now, we're communicating. We're listening to each other, talking to each other through our instruments. It's a very special bond we have, and I'm incredibly lucky to have somebody like Joe in my life."

Joe…can you top that?

[laughs] Satriani: "Geez, I don't know. That was…that was very nice. [pauses] Just thinking back to those days, when the two of us would play together, and we were so young…it really fills me with such wonderful memories.

"My experiences of playing with Steve in those early days were so multi-layered. Not only was I witnessing the coming of age of this new musician who was going to be this fountain of just mind-blowing stuff - I could see it happening right in front me, and it was so exciting, like, 'Whoa, check this guy out!' - but I found somebody who made me feel good about being a musician myself. His enthusiasm and every advancement he made fueled my own passion and desire and joy about playing the guitar.

"We still have that. Even now, when we play together and do concerts, it's like a continuation of those times when we were teenagers. True, it's not a student-and-teacher thing anymore; now, we're two guys who have a way of communicating with each other, and we do it intuitively. It's really remarkable. When I see and hear what Steve does on stage, I almost feel like I have to go out into the audience and tell people, 'Do you see what is happening before you? Check that guy out!'" [laughs]

Vai: "Way too kind, Joe. But I would say the very same thing about you."

Well, it sounds like the concert you're putting on for Cliff is going to be quite an amazing time.

Satriani: "Once we figure out the setlist, it will be. [laughs] I think what we're all learning here is that anything can happen and probably will. It's going to be one of those incredible nights where we just play and play until they pull the electricity on us."

And, of course, you're going to be doing a webcast of the event, and you're going to set up a way for people who can't make the actual show to make donations.

Vai: "That's right. In addition, we'll be auctioning off some very special guitars. Cliff is very near and dear to us, so we certainly want to do all we can to raise as much money for him. He's helped us out in ways that I can't even put into words. Like I said before, whatever we can do for him, we're there. He's certainly been there for us."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.