Review by Paul H Birch, photos by Rich Ward
There are a lot of amplifiers lined up on stage tonight. They’re not the whacking great monster rigs that used to loom down like ominous towers of power (technology, but more so local noise level permits have put paid to those days), but one gets the impression a lot of musicians are going to be plugging in tonight. No big surprise, though the size of Uli Jon Roth’s band possibly is. Drums, bass, keyboards and two additional guitar players walk on stage before the former Scorpions guitarist himself. Unfortunately, he does what you shouldn’t do at the Symphony – He begins adjusting his foot switch and amp settings to get a sound he’s happy with, thus not allowing the building’s own unique acoustic flexibility design to enhance what’s naturally there across the auditorium. It was a mistake made frequently when the building first opened and rock and pop acts began avoiding it, but staff working with sound engineers over the years has generally eradicated that problem to confirm it as having one of the finest acoustics in the UK, and one of the best in the world. The upshot of this is that Roth’s seven string guitar – tends to crackle and go up and down in volume early on as they launch into ‘Sky Overture’.
As he begins to express himself in a legato manner white lights pour forth across the hall and overhead a large video screen displays the guitarist’s signature logo. Kudos to Joe Satriani and the G3 organisation for ensuring those playing before him aren’t just guests in name but are accorded all the facilities the headline act will be. Speedy runs give way to neo-classical turns of flight along Roth’s fretboard as they complete the instrumental.
The rest of the night will see him digging further back with a brace of Scorpions classics, as featured on his recent Tokyo Tapes Revisited album. ‘Sun in My Hand’ moves at a slower pace than the In Trance album version becoming a deep slow blues, Roth taking vocals as on record. Other than adding weight to the songs it’s not always apparent what his protégés Niklas Turman and David Klosinski bring to the songs, but as this one goes into its Shadows-style echoed melody section as they gather centre stage it adds to the overall sound, the music getting faster, taking on an almost country new age twang before it ends.
He dedicates the next song to his brother, Zeno, who died earlier this year, and that guitarist’s portrait is featured on the video screen as they play ‘We’ll Burn The Sky,’ Klosinski taking on Klaus Meine’s vocal role and hitting some high notes. As they move out of the arpeggio section into the rock part we become aware the song has been updated. Roth’s guitar settings now adjusted to the hall, the notes he plays are graced with emotion. Then, just as we’re getting warmed up, everyone leaves the stage save for Roth and his keyboard player Corvin Bahn who begins to make out like he’s in Tangerine Dream laying out space whispers and deep bass synthesised sounds over which guitar notes begin to cluster, collide frantically and squeal out just as the band return we realise it’s a new intro for ‘Fly To The Rainbow’. From skipping guitar melody, to main theme as Hendrix imbued folk, before blues licks sustain and holding over a general new age prog rock outline there is a joyous feel to it overall, Roth’s left hand dances up and down the fretboard, his right conducting the band. Only for him to stop, raise his guitar away from him, tugs at its tremolo arm and make the most enormous feedback sound reverberate tunefully around the symphony hall. No longer his enemy the building embraces what he gives leaving the listener with the impression they’re literally standing on the track at the Grand Prix.
A heavy drum roll seem to take us into the song’s climax but it’s in fact the opening to ‘Sails of Charon’. Harsh guitars give way to its unique funky shuffle, with an added Arabic flavour as Roth heads out in exploratory mode adding folk and new age elements before rocking things up to a suitable satisfying musical conclusion albeit that we could of done with a couple more songs once the sound was sorted.
But this is a precision run operation you can tell that watching the roadies wheel drum kits on and off stage with military precision, even the music over the PA is set to put us in guitar frenzy mode – ranging from John McLaughlin giving it some with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, to a soul-blissed Robin Trower and Dixie Dregs giving it some. Now though, the video screen comes to life taking us from outer space to vast mountain landscapes as what I’ll later find is ‘Wrath of the Amazons’ plays out over the speakers that has to compete with a healthy roar from the crowd as they John Petrucci and his rhythm section stride on stage – To be frank, it’s not the guitarist’s hirsute Grizzly Adams complexion you first notice it’s the massive biceps bursting out Hulk like from his t-shirt, and the fact his guitars look rather small in comparison.
My knowledge of Dream Theater, the band from which Petrucci most often earns his daily bread (as is his drummer here tonight, Mike Mangini) is practically nil; so I’ve no idea what to expect tonight, though it’s readily apparent a good number of the audience are here for him specifically. With only three of them on stage, the other being former Dixie Dregs bass player Dave LaRue, and the set being fully instrumental the hall works in sympathy with the sound on stage from the start. Their first number is a barrage of melodic prog metal wherein some psychedelic shapes are thrown in during its first guitar solo. My mind is of the impression that the rhythm section may play well but they’re adhering to old school techniques, this thought will be modified as the evening progresses. As Petrucci goes in for some double hand tapping LaRue counters with some bass slapping, as they tentatively work the stage.
They follow this with the aptly named ‘Happy Song’ wherein Petrucci delights with a flute-like Celtic melody that drives into a snazzy AOR section and back out again with the expected counter melodies and solos along the way. Next up, ‘Damage Control’ comes on like a scene from Gormenghast with Sabbath throbbing riffs before going off into a discordant extemporised section as empty city streets play out on screen, the music speeding, then going into a heavy jazz fusion section where my attention stays with LaRue who I’m becoming seriously impressed by. ‘Glass Eyed Zombies’ is a new song the guitarist informs us, a prog metal number with an offbeat rhythm applicable for the walking dead while the guitar sound is rather lyrical by contrast.
‘Glasgow Kiss’ finishes Petrucci’s set and yes, we get a bit of a Scottish jig in this but it’s metal through and through with another jazz prog section for good measure. And, again, just as I’m getting into things the band wave goodbye and I make a mental note that I got to get hold of ‘The Happy Song’ once it’s recorded.
Joe Satriani features the same band I saw him with a couple of years back: Mike Keneally on keyboards and guitar, Bryan Beller on bass and Joe Travers on drums. The set is as expected a greatest instrumental hits overview of his career, with the added bonus of a healthy dose of numbers from his new album What Happens Next. And first out the traps is that record’s opening number ‘Energy’. Only, despite there being some guitar pyrotechnics straight from the start the overall feel is that this is a more relaxed version than that recorded. Exemplary musicians as they are on stage, I’m convinced the rhythm section of Glenn Hughes and Chad Smith on that record weren’t there in the role of being sympathetic players but to push and drive him,. Lesser men need only worry the fact is the audience like what they hear. Then, before we get time to relax we’re straight into ‘Catbot’ with its dirty gritty rhythm intercut by squeals of painful delight as he wrings his guitar’s neck for all its worth.
Next up comes signature tune ‘Satch Boogie’ about as old school rock n’ roll as this set’s gonna get regarding its basic song structure, though to be honest some of the guitar techniques that were considered state of the art back when this was first recorded may be considered old hat, and Joe seems to know that too because the video plays the old MTV video of him with long hair miming to the song while on stage the shaven-bonced sunglass touting guy he is on stage tonight guitar plays it for real, the hands of time having slowed him down not one iota, and more to the point the reality that it’s not what you play but how you play it, and for all his virtuosity it’s his keen sense of lyrical melody that keeps Mr Satriani a player in the music biz and not one of those countless shredders whose names we’ve forgot. “We did good, right?” he asks to applause as he then introduces the band, scoring righteous guitar runs as each member’s announced.
But tonight’s hardly about living in the past; one after another we get three more songs from What Happens Next. An oriental pagoda with flowering trees plays on screen for ‘Cherry Blossoms’, Travers laying down a heavy beat that contrasts with the sweeter melody applied by Satriani, and some chilling keys from Keneally before its blown away by some heavy metal outpourings.
‘Thunder High on the Mountain’ follows next after a change over to a red Stratocaster from the main man as Beller leads the crowd in a clap along session. Its main riff is less like Mountain’s ‘Mississippi Queen’ than on record and more organically merges with its fusion elements for doing so, to this we can hear section where you could do a short Irish folk dance (‘were your feet so inclined) that’s followed by power chords and some atypical Hendix turns of phrase before settling into a slow blues prog feel with new age undertones.
For the slinky fusion shuffle of ‘Super Funky Badass’ Satriani is himself seen grooving across the stage, not that he’s exactly been static at any part during the event, and come a while later will be seen most distinctly wearing his dancing shoes, and he’s appears just happy for Keneally to take solos while he concentrates on laying down a rhythm. Swopping guitars again he prepares to dip into the past, telling us ‘Circles’ was written 30 years ago, its inventive chord playing approach and it segues effortlessly into ‘Always With Me, Always With You’ as sweet harmonies and a hurricane of sustained whammy bar effects given full rein.
He calls time on the first song I ever heard by the guy, ‘Summer Song’ and while we’re still a few days away from the weather turning for the good, you can’t but help be put in a good mood by this joyous rendition. Again, the video screen overhead is playing the original video to the song and whereas there are scenes in that where he’s sitting round playing his six-string here on stage at the end of the set he’s still rushing round.
As the band extend the song’s climactic end the roadies are even now placing 6’ long effects boards on the floor and wheeling amps back on stage in preparation for all three guitarists to jam (as such) on a series of classic rock tunes as encores. First up we get Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ with David Klosinski returning to scream out Ian Gillan’s high notes, Petrucci pulling down a dirty hard rhythm guitar sound and Roth soloing away from the get-go. Overall it’s dramatic and powerful, but where they actually fail is over the Bach progression that forms the song’s main guitar solo – On record, Blackmore overdubbed guitars and the three mimic that playing incredibly precise together, whereas on record the guitars are slightly out of phase; in the same manner Gillan’s voice would be harmonised back when Martin Birch sat in that band’s producer’s chair. But ultimately, this is being played for fun – ‘cos they love the song! – and you can see it in their faces, even down to slowing things down and hamming it up as they collectively get heavy with their whammy bars drowning us in harmonic white noise.
A regular Uli Jon Roth cover ‘All Along The Watchtower’ comes next, sung by the man himself… The ultimate guitar fest mash-up, each taking a solo in turn, a gypsy like cadence to the whole thing, moving between jazzy runs, bustling blues and metal sustained frenzies between the three of them. And throughout, Satriani is bopping about doing some combination of Chuck Berry duck walk and Michael Jackson backwards moon walk, totally caught up in the moment enjoying himself.
Klosinski then returns for ‘The Immigrant Song’ and while he hit the right notes he doesn’t really carry this one off vocally, but then this is really about three guitarists chugging down on Jimmy Page’s octave jumping riff and trying to make their last mind-bending solos of the night count, plus Niklas Turman returns to take one, right after Satriani has passed his own guitar to Klosinski to do so too, all that and Beller has handed over four string duties to LaRue. Solos over they play the riff to Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker’ then give us one final verse of ‘The Immigrant Song’ before that’s it, time to head for home.
Truth be told, the encores were a bit sloppy in places, but they evoked a great end of tour party atmosphere. One you get the impression was incredibly harmonious with all respect due to Satriani for ensuing full use of stage facilities were given to Roth and Petrucci. A class act, both individually and collectively.
Uli Jon Roth Setlist
1. Sky Overture
2. Sun in My Hand
3. We’ll Burn the Sky
4. Fly to the Rainbow
5. The Sails of Charon
John Petrucci Setlist
1. Wrath of the Amazons
2. Jaws of Life
3. The Happy Song
4. Damage Control
5. Glassy-Eyed Zombies
6. Glasgow Kiss
Joe Satriani Setlist
3. Satch Boogie
4. Cherry Blossoms
5. Thunder High on the Mountain
6. Super Funky Badass
8. Always With Me, Always With You
9. Summer Song
1. Highway Star
2. All Along the Watchtower
3. The Immigrant Song