Back in 1996 Joe Satriani began the G3 tours, bringing together three major guitar players for evenings of fret board pyrotechnics that warmed the hearts of even the most jaded of fans. Since that first tour with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, Joe has mounted five more with players as varied as Robert Fripp and Yngwie Malmsteem joining the line-up. For the sixth tour he has reunited the grouping from 2003, Steve Vai, John Petrucci and their respective bands join him for another guitar hero stomp around the world.
Thankfully, for those of us who haven’t been able to attend any of these events, Epic Records has ensured that a record is kept of each tour. For the 2005 event they have released both a D.V.D. and a two-disc CD called G3 Live in Tokyo. Recorded live at their concert in May of this year, both items will be available for general release on October 25th 2005.
I was fortunate enough to receive an early copy of the D.V.D. that contained no more than just the concert footage. (It arrived with no packaging, no accompanying notes, just a disc that looked like it had been burned off the master computer on a retail D.V.D.) In fact there was no menu or chapter breakdowns yet prepared on the disc, and stamped across the front of the label were the words, not final audio.
The packaging may have been unfinished but what was inside was amazing. I run my TV through a modified Labtech 5.1 surround computer speaker system, which although limited compared to most home theatre systems still sounds far superior to regular stereo. Even through this less than ideal set up, the sound was crystal clear, every note so distinct that you could set the volume low and just appreciate the skill on display.
The concert set-up is really quite straightforward. Each player came out and did a solo gig with his band, and than the three of them got together and did extended jams around three classic rock songs. (More on that later.) For folks like me whose knowledge of their individual talents was pretty much limited to reputation this was ideal, as it provided a great introduction to individual styles.
The disc opens with a two-song set from John Petrucci. He was the one really unknown factor for me as I had never heard anything by him or his band “Dream Theatre” He started off with a piece called “Glasgow Kiss” (slang for head butt) and I was immediately a fan.
This had to be some of the cleanest rock guitar work I have ever heard. Each note distinct; no matter how fast his fingers travelled up the fret board everything sounded clear as a bell. No hiding behind fuzz or distortion for this guy, and none of the usual posing or attitude that accompanies rock guitar.
It was a jazz approach to rock guitar; the music is the important thing not who is performing. Not that Petrucci doesn’t have stage presence, because he does, it’s just not the kind one normally associates with rock and roll. He can rock as hard as any metal head out there, but he’s stripped it of all ego allowing you to stay focused on his playing, not his hair.
After his far too brief two-song set, he was replaced on stage by Steve Vai. I have heard him play over the years with a variety of front man, like David Lee Roth and Frank Zappa, but had never seen him perform. What a hoot. Much more the typical rock guitarist than Petrucci, with his flamboyance and showmanship, but there is something almost tongue in cheek about the whole deal.
Anytime that he would strike a typical rock pose, like head banging with his bass player (the amazing Billy Sheehan), the huge smile on his face would let you know that it was all in fun. Like Petrucci he isn’t one to hide his sound behind too many effects. It’s all about technique and speed for Steve Vai.
His fingers fly up and down the fret board, both hands sometimes coming into play, chopping, plucking, strumming, and picking notes and sounds in a kaleidoscope of ever shifting patterns that was stunning. Time after time he would make runs that would leave me awestruck.
His one little, almost gimmick, was to make his guitar talk. He would shape notes and sounds to imitate words and questions. At the beginning of his first song, “The Audience is Listening”, while the house lights were still up, you could hear his guitar from off stage, asking everybody how they were doing. It was never something he overdid, but it would creep into almost every song, but only if appropriate. He’s far too skilled a musician to let a novelty item ruin a song.
Joe Satriani had the final solo spot, and for me he was a disappointment. Far more the typical rock guitar hero than the other two, his performances quickly degenerated into far too much noise over music. He placed far more reliance of effects and distortion than either of the other two, and his playing seemed and sounded far less clean.
That is not to say that he is not a skilled guitar player, because he obviously is. He is just as fast and effortless as either one of the other two, but I didn’t like his style of playing. Perhaps it was the contrast between the cleanness of Petrucci and the infectious fun of Vai, that made him so offputting for me, but what ever it was I found I wasn’t enjoying his set anywhere near as much as the earlier ones.
The real fun of this disc is the final three songs when the boys get on stage and jam together in front of Satriani’s band. For the jam they picked three staples of guitar rock to perform: Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady, Z. Z. Top’s “La Grange”, and the old war horse itself, Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” (other wise known as Slow Motion Walter, The Fire Engine Guy)
Of course each song featured a solo by each of them, but in what was the highlight of each song, they would gather downstage and do their version of duelling banjos. Petrucci would start a lick; pass it to Vai, who would hand off to Satriani, who would then throw it back to Petrucci.
It was seamlessly done, with each man complementing what the other had started, playing with it for a few seconds, and handing off something brand new to the next in line. I have no idea how rehearsed these moments were, but they appeared to be the spontaneous creation of one lead by three players. Fantastic.
Guitar heroes can only go so far by themselves; they need to have really tight players to work with. Especially important are the base and drums to hold everything together as the front man goes off on his travels. Each of these guys brought along formidable people who kept everything tight as a drum.
The bands seemed to reflect the performers’ personality, with Petrucci’s being as reserved as him, and Vai’s being as outrageous as their leader. Vai’s base player, Billy Sheehan, in particular, stood out among the sidemen with not only his playing but his style. He was kind of hard to miss with his bright red leather pants and platform-heeled boots, and when he was called out to do vocals on the Z. Z. Top number in the finale, he proved to have the perfect voice for that song.
Rock guitar heroics seem to be almost a thing of the past for mainstream music these days, what with so much emphasis on electronics and manufactured sounds. G3 Live In Tokyo is a reminder of days when rock and roll meant blues based guitar music. This D.V.D. is a wonderful opportunity to own a beautifully filmed record of a concert by three of the more talented individuals still playing.
If guitar music is your thing, head down to your music store and pick up this disc on October 25th. You won’t be disappointed.