Sound Check: For one subculture of the pop music world, the guitar is still king - The Buffalo News
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Sound Check: For one subculture of the pop music world, the guitar is still king

I attended the Joe Satriani/Steve Morse double-bill at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts last week, and am well aware that, in certain circles, this is a fact I’d be better off keeping to myself.

Unless you are a musician – and probably specifically a guitarist – you are not likely to think guys like Satriani and Morse are cool. Neither has hipster credibility, it’s safe to say. Admitting you enjoy their mildly self-indulgent displays of virtuosity is not going to gain you any hipster credibility, either.

During the intermission between Morse’s and Satriani’s sets, I casually brought this point up to a number of audience members and was thrilled to learn not one of them seemed to care.

“I’d rather see and hear someone who is a brilliant musician than someone who is considered ‘cool’ by people who don’t really know anything about music, and think it’s somehow nerdy to be a great player,” said one 40-something male.

I got a huge kick out of this statement and found in it something resembling a vigilant integrity. The subtext, in my interpretation, is that pop culture places no real value on instrumental abilities. It’s all about singers, their personalities, their star auras and, let’s face it, their outfits. Or so it can seem.

On the other side of the coin, there are the alternative, punk and indie-rock scenes that place extreme value on “authenticity,” a term that can be slippery to define but can essentially be reduced to the notion that musical virtuosity gets in the way of genuine expression.

These two factions rarely get along, and I’ve always found that to be a bit of a shame. As someone who finds no contradiction in loving, for example, both the Pixies and Yes, I’ve found endlessly frustrating the suggestion that such extreme examples of musical subgenre are mutually exclusive. Really? Why? And says who?

At the Satriani/Morse show, you would never have known that punk rock came along in the ’70s, supposedly to level the playing field and democratize popular music. The idea was that things had become too bloated, that listeners were worshipping abundantly skilled musicians and treating them like gods, thereby creating an air of exclusivity that kept out any potential musician who wasn’t a prodigious talent.

At the Center for the Arts last week, fans were offering standing ovations for guitar solos, though. That is a phenomenon largely confined to gigs where “guitar geeks” gather to hear players revered for their heroic displays of virtuosity. And it’s something that, given the current paucity of importance placed on such abilities in the broader pop world, I find incredibly charming.

Of course, sometimes such shows devolve rather quickly into the realm of self-indulgence. No one wants to attend a concert and feel like the musicians are simply running through their personal practice regime, seeking to show off all their best tricks, subtlety and musicality be damned. This wasn’t the case with Morse and Satriani, both of whom take the time to write actual songs, with melodies, key changes, harmonies, shifts in rhythmic texture and the like. But I can recall walking out of a performance by neoclassical “shredder” Yngwie Malmsteen after a mere 15 minutes, simply because the guy was chewing up the scenery and had displayed his entire bag of tricks within the first few minutes of the show.

A great example of an inspired balancing act between instrumental virtuosity and indie-rock-approved “authenticity” happens every time I see the band Wilco in concert. The “simpler” songwriting of Jeff Tweedy is aided and abetted by the searing virtuosity of guitarist Nels Cline. There’s something delightfully radical about this disregard for the battle lines that have supposedly been drawn between “hipsters” and “guitar geeks.” Who says you can’t be both?


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