G3, Hordern Pavilion 30/3/12
Nothing seems to divide modern rock guitar fans like shred-metal guitar. On one side of the rickety fence is the fragrant, hairy army of blooz-rock nuts who now and forever will believe Clapton IS God (with Duane Allman a wild St Peter) and no argument; they talk imponderables such as ‘taste’, ‘tone’ and ‘Fillmore’ etc. Over on the other side are the black-tshirted Van Halen freaks who cannot get enough insane speed, volume or distortion for their liking. It seems you just can’t like both. The blooz guys call the VH style tasteless and ‘widdly-widdly’ and much of the VH army barely knows one end of an Allman Brother from the other.
The Big Bangs of Rock Guitar are few but each has been nothing short of seismic, actually shaping almost all of rock music that came after. Chuck Berry’s boogie-shuffle, Kinks/Who powerchords, Jimi Hendrix’s atomic devastation of whatever had constituted electric guitar – and the last great stylist, Edward Lodewijk ‘Eddie’ Van Halen. Building on the Hendrix amp-overload template, Van Halen developed a singing, stinging style on a guitar he had bolted together from spare parts – he then set about inventing a range of techniques to exploit this impossible tone: string-tapping (and all its variants), harmonics, extreme use of the tremolo (or whammy) bar, etc.
All of this would have been ignored had not Van Halen carried it off with enormous musicality, humour and excitement (and David Lee Roth). Van Halen launched several armadas of truly awful guitarists (and some utter genii, such as Living Colour’s Vernon Reid) – and this is the rub with shred-metal guitar: How much is technique and how much is feeling?
Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion hosted three of the greatest living exponents of shred-metal guitar on Friday at the end of March. Touring as G3, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather treated the converted to almost four hours of fervent worship at the church of St Eddie.
Steve Lukather, a musical polymath who made his name with 70s soft rockers TOTO was up first. Despite being paired with Satriani and Vai for this tour, Lukather’s style is rooted more in the blues-jazz fusion style of guitarists such as Frank Gambale. He is one hell of a guitar player with a pedigree longer than most. Working through funk-rock and blues-metal material with his band, he laid out some gorgeous pre-Van Halen flavours with more than enough technique and flash for the shredheads.
Next up was the remarkable Steve Vai. Vai was discovered by Frank Zappa who first used him as a music transcriber and later for ‘Strat abuse’ on several 80s albums. (Long time Zappa keysman, Mike Keneally was also in Vai’s crack band tonight). A restless creative soul, Steve Vai is equally loved and loathed for his extreme technique and left-field personal philosophies. A contemporary and pupil of Joe Satriani, he has taken even Satriani’s extremes to the extreme. Eye-poppingly flash from the first note, Vai played hits from across his oeuvre – his rendition of the ballad ‘For the Love of God’ was proof that under all that dizzying space-circus acrobatics his musicality is beyond question: the arc of his solo was perfect in shape and utterly spiritual in voice. And the wonderful thing about a true virtuoso such as Steve Vai is they never appear to run out of places to go. I saw God, while the hairy gent beside me muttered “Fuck, he goes off”. Such is the appeal of Steve Vai.
Also, such is the over-egged nature of Vai’s style that when the true shred-master of the three guitarists, Joe Satriani, hit the stage, he seemed a little tame. But by the end of ‘Satch Boogie’ – a monster slice of metal-funk from his startling 1987 album Surfing with the Alien – Joe had put your head right. Satriani, more than any other guitar player has been instrumental (pun intended) in widening the Van Halen palette – a hugely popular artist, producer and teacher, he has spread the righteous word for years. It is worth looking beyond the amazing runs and unearthly fretwork at his music – this man studied with blind jazz-wizard Lennie Tristano, after all.
The G3 gig finished, as they all do (G3 has been an institution in rock guitar since 1996) with a series of triple-guitar jams. The Zappa connection continued with opening jam, FZ’s ‘My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama’ – but cramming three larger-than-life guitarists into the same song can’t really work on any truly musical level. By the time the three had gang-banged Jimi Hendrix’s delicate and spacey ‘Little Wing’ to death, I was gone.
But what do I know? Everyone there utterly loved it – after all, excess is a key ingredient in this music – and went crazy for it. I am sure my hairy friend would agree that they fuckin’ went off. And they did.
Check out Katja Liebing’s great shots of the G3 show here