Let's get the pleasantries out of the way right off the bat.
Joe Satriani is a technically brilliant guitarist, and he has assembled around him -- not for the first time -- a wonderful, incredibly tight collective of first-tier musicians. Sunday, he delighted what appeared to be a full house in UB's Center for the Arts and played a lengthy, vibrant, enthused show.
It would be hard to criticize Satriani on his own playing field. In the idiom of guitar-based instrumental rock tunes he helped create, he is almost anyone's equal.
However, at times during the show, I had the feeling I was eavesdropping on someone doing something they'd probably rather do in private.
Guitar soloing can be absolutely sublime, even if it goes on for far longer than the entire length of "straight" pop tunes. But that sort of playing is finest, let's admit, when there are key changes, or at least interesting sequences of chord voicings, happening underneath.
Most of Satriani's biggest influences -- who, by the sound of it, include Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Steve Vai and Edward Van Halen -- did their "blowing" within a context that included more than just one chord.
Sometimes one chord can be enough to set the player on his or her way -- most often within the terrain of modal improvisation, be it Miles Davis, the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Pat Metheny Group, or Zappa's various ensembles.
But with the more riff-rock-oriented stuff, there simply isn't enough harmonic meat for listeners to sink their teeth into.
No one I encountered inside the Center for the Arts on Sunday seemed to have any problem with Satriani's technically exceptional histrionics, however. The man -- and his excellent band, which included another renowned "shred" instrumentalist, bassist Stu Hamm -- garnered several standing ovations within the first few tunes, and there was no doubting his commitment to the moment at any point throughout Sunday's gig.
Satriani and the band kicked off the evening with the groove-based "I Just Wanna Rock," which sounded not unlike the Apollo 440 release "Ain't Talking 'Bout Dub," a tribute to Van Halen.
A rapid-fire series of tunes followed, including a few from Satriani's hit album, "Surfing with the Alien," among them the "Satch Boogie" and "Flying in a Blue Dream." Both of these were played quite well and were punctuated by inspired Satriani solos.
"Ice Nine" was probably the highlight of the early part of the set, not just because of Satriani's soloing, which was hyper-fast and virtuosic, but because of Hamm's bass support, which offered a show in itself.
A new song called "Ghosts" gets my nod for the finest of the evening.
Over a super-cool vamp, punctuated by interesting accents that recalled "Them or Us"-era Zappa, Satriani stretched out considerably, and his mastery of tone, effects and hot licks reached its peak. Most in attendance seemed utterly stunned by the man's mastery.
Mountain opened the set, with founding members Leslie West and Corky Laing in evidence. The trio -- best known for its biggest hit, "Mississippi Queen," but renowned among the power-trio savvy for the immense stature of its "Climbing" album -- threatened to steal the show.
Even if West -- who plays pretty much straight, blues-based stuff, with a killer, beefy guitar tone -- is not a master on the scale of Satriani, he and Mountain brought soul music to the table.
Whether West and Co. were tackling the ambitious "Nantucket Sleighride," offering a torrid take on Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or giving the crowd exactly what it wanted with "Mississippi Queen," they did it with heart, energy and a strong dynamic interplay.
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With Mountain featuring Leslie West and Corky Laing on Sunday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst.