Review by Ian Cohen
WHO: Steve Vai and Joe Satriani
WHERE: House of Blues
“They don't make 'em like they used to.” “Lion of the industry.” Those are the sort of old salts that probably would be sprinkled about upon the mention of ailing music biz vet Cliff Cultreri (most recently, as the VP of A&R at wildly inclusive Koch Records), the namesake of Sunday night's Benefit For Cliff II at the Hollywood House of Blues. Regardless of what you think of Our Lady Peace, Bones Thugs n Harmony and My Bloody Valentine, Cultreri's worked with all of them, an indication that he's the type who's ambitious, curious and respected enough to be one of the few suits worthy of a fundraiser in his name – even if by all indications, he really is a mountain climber who plays electric guitar.
But those sort of aforementioned clichés feel every bit as applicable to the benefit's headliners, a follow-up to the first which took place in 2006 as Cultreri battled auto-immune and connective tissue disorders. Steve Vai and Joe Satriani were discovered by Cultreri while he was at the erstwhile Relativity Records, and are most certainly still the biggest names in virtuoso guitar shredding. (Though Yngwie Malmsteen might come close, it's more than likely that more people have made fun of the dude for being an asshole than have heard his music.)
Though it's possible that honor could've been Dimebag Darrell's to lose had he not been suffered the most underrated fucked-up death in rock history, pretty sure no one has more proudly and regularly graced issues of Guitar World for the past two decades and counting than Satch and Vai. And what they do never goes out of style mostly because it was never in style. You can create a sort of peripheral connection to something like Rock of Bells in how it caters to an almost entirely male audience obsessing over the purity of technique – most often, it's not what is said as how fast and precise it's said. But for the latter, many rappers can be grandfathered into this after the fact (don't think anyone would consider Tech N9ne a “golden age” type), plus unlike with hip-hop there's really no contemporary version of their “corrupted art” for Vai and Satch to rail against. If the chips fell a little different, these two would almost certainly be playing in glam metal bands at their commercial height, and they did make a little hay out of grunge's lack of flair and tapping solos. But more than ever, this world is its own thing – they used to pop mad shit about the likes of Billy Corgan, and Siamese Dream alone had more guitar solos than every rock song on the radio in 2011 combined.
It was billed as Vai and Satriani “plus friends.” These guys have a sense of humor about themselves: Deathklok took the stage before a crowd of which a fraction was stoked and the greater percentage just confused. With all due respect to the fact that they make music for a cartoon metal band, they could easily be mistaken for roadies. Nonetheless, they thrashed through an admittedly kickass set in about a half-hour, astounding fretboard runs and bowel-clenching vocals made all the more frightening coming from dudes who look like they should probably be playing Steely Dan covers instead. Which they actually did, closing out with likely the only version of “Reelin' In The Years” to climax with a double kick-drum solo.
In between, we remembered why we were all here as an auction from Joe Satriani's personal stash of amps and guitars started in earnest. Dunno, I thought the auctioneer was being mad manipulative by pointing out Cultreri's kids, but if we learned anything last night, it's that a live auction in a music venue (keeping track of bids is nearly impossible from the stage) is actually a great place to get a total bargain on Mesa Boogie cabinets during a recession. Even I know $400 is a steal for a 4×12 cab.
When Vai finally took the stage, it was the sort of thing that makes you temporarily forget everything years' worth of shows at places like the Echo have taught you about rock bands. Though they're tighter in a sense of pure technicality than nearly any band I've ever seen, they look like they might've spent a total of five hours in the same room. The severely tattooed drummer appears to have been kicked out of some Warped Tour side stage act for being too chopsy, his electric violinist looks like a celebrity chef, and someone forgot to tell the rhythm guitarist that he's playing in a band with Steve Vai, because he's on stage wearing jeans and Florsheims.
And there's no other way of putting it: Every single thing Steve Vai does on stage makes you want to smack the living shit out of him. Surely he knows this; after all, he plays an absurd number of Ibanez guitars, the brand most widely mocked by snarky fuckers like myself in large part because it's the pointiest. The first one he played on was translucent and glowing Ecto Cooler green on the inside. More uncomfortable guitar “fuck faces” in ten minutes than G.E. Smith's whole SNL career. Is it still a “guitar solo” when it's the entire song? At one point, a wave of cleanly-picked octaves made me think he was doing some sort of Hendrix tribute, and then it just tailed off into Weather Channel interstitial land. Of course, you can consider this all to be true and still be utterly astounded by Vai, a man whose entire musical existence seems frozen in time and utterly immune to ideas about credibility and humility – the leather pants, the whammy bar dive bombs, the fans in T-shirts that simply extol the existence of guitars (examples, “Tune It Or Die,” “Instruments Of Destruction”).
I always assumed there was something of an Agassi/Sampras-style rivalry between Vai and Satch, though it must be said that Mr. Steffi Graf has rocked both the feathery look as well as the baldhead slick. But at least compared to his foil, Satriani appears more like a down-to-earth dude mostly because he relies on far fewer facial expressions and his wardrobe appears free of spangly buttoned-down shirts and leather vest/pants combos. Plus, he's aligned himself with the Silver Surfer, for whatever reason, a superhero I find to be weirdly workmanlike for no real reason.
Which is really a good comparison for Satch himself, since compared to obviously self-styled supermen like Vai, he can actually come off as somewhat humble, his still hyperdrive guitar playing showing at least some sort of tether to blues or hard rock or something achievable to people who have owned a Telecaster based on its looks and never stepped on the Berklee campus. And while the “plus friends” vibe was heartening, remembering Dweezil Zappa actually was a musician at one point felt more surprising than his appearance. But all in all, the night itself was meant as a celebration of the way things used to be – untouchable guitar gods, legendary music execs, a momentary reprieve from the prevalence of synthesizers – and hoping it might stay that way just a bit longer.