G3: Hit Or Miss

(Appeared On December 25th, 1997 -- Merry aXemas!)

In this era of package tours, guitar gods Joe Satriani and Steve Vai recently ran their second big G3 tour with a third guitar hero in tow (the first time they had Eric Johnson, this time Kenny Wayne Shepherd). The tour made a detour through the Big Room, leaving behind the albums that inspired and resulted from the first G3 gathering: Career highlight records from Satriani, Vai, and Johnson, and also the recent _G3 -- Live_ album.

Joe Satriani -- _Surfing With The Alien_ (Relativity, 1987)

Single-handedly revitalizing instrumental guitar rock nearly 10 years ago, _Surfing_ brought guitar indulgency to new heights of restraint with superb compositions like the straight-ahead hard rock of "Crushing Day", the gentle "Always With Me, Always With You", the atmospheric "Hill Of The Skull" and "Circles", and the beautiful and breathtaking "Midnight", which literally introduced a new technique to a generation of guitarists. The album's highlight is the infectious "Satch Boogie", a killer guitar workout that makes it really hard to sit still. (Try it sometime.) _Surfing_ affected almost every guitarist who heard it, setting standards for performance and instrumental songwriting against which a genre is now judged. This is an essential album for every serious rock guitarist and an excellent addition to the instrumental rock collection of non-guitarists, too.

Steve Vai -- _Fire Garden_ (Epic, 1996)

This is the only CD I've ever seen that warns listeners it may be too intense for them to digest in one sitting, a fair warning preceding the most astonishing statment in rock guitar since _Electric Ladyland_, or perhaps ever. Infused with Vai's newly excellent songwriting, _Fire Garden_ is the complete package, a mature virtuoso (a long way from noodling as "stunt guitarist" for Frank Zappa) playing strong compositions without sacrificing his stupefying technique. This album is diversely amazing, featuring "Bangkok" (from themes from the musical _Chess_), the emotional "All About Eve", the funky "Genocide", the instrumental stomp of "There's A Fire In The House" (Vai's old guitar teacher, Satriani, would be proud), and the full-spectrum, indescribable "Fire Garden Suite" with Vai's dazzling guitar/piano interplay (he plays both instruments, using overdubbing). _Fire Garden_ is 74 minutes of intensity and perfection, half instrumental, half vocal, and much more successful than Satriani's (still excellent) _Flying In A Blue Dream_. This sets the new standard to which rock guitar should aspire, to my ears the most incredible guitar album ever released. Nobody who enjoys electric guitar music or high-intensity rock in general should be without it. Go, buy it now, you can finish reading this later.

Eric Johnson -- _Venus Isle_ (Capitol, 1996)

Eric Johnson has taste and tone comparable to nobody but Jeff Beck, and even then much more ethereal and modern. _Venus Isle_ is sweet, atmospheric, and so musically deep that rock-oriented listeners may become occasionally overwhelmed. The poppy "All About You", the bluesy tribute "S.R.V.", and the jazzy George Benson-flavored "Manhattan" are memorable tracks, but the album has a uniformity of aura that makes it, while all very impressive, challenging in the way some Progressive Rock and Jazz albums can be, requiring effort from the listener before their full impact is felt.

Perhaps the best indication of this album's accomplishment is that my friends who like musical variety but not guitar indulgency have been generally taken by _Venus Isle_, more so than Satch or Vai albums. It is beautiful, diverse, extravagant and still understated, widely appealing without the overt pyrotechnics of the other G3 participants. This is not for the high-energy hard rock crowd, but listeners who can appreciate subtlety in rock music (an odd pairing, perhaps) will be richly rewarded by Johnson's tonal and compositional brilliance.

Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai -- _G3 -- Live_ (Epic, 1997)

With three Satriani tunes, three Johnson tunes, three Vai tunes, and then three on which they all perform, _G3 -- Live_ does a fair job of capturing the live feel of the tour on an album. Unfortunately, I like Satriani's studio work _much_ better than his live work, and this album doesn't change that opinion, with both the subtle and beautiful "Flying In A Blue Dream" and the upbeat "Summer Song" losing their energy outside the studio. Johnson's guitar tone stands well in this live setting, but his tunes fare little better than Satch's, except for the somewhat successful "Camel's Night Out". Vai's trio of tunes translate reasonably well, for better or worse: "For The Love Of God" is ponderous in both studio and live versions, while "The Attitude Song" is as stunning live as in its original incarnation, perhaps made more so by Mike Kaneally's doubling of Vai's lines, a duet that all by itself justifies the album for hardcore guitar freaks. The tracks on which all three of them play are a fun, interesting sample of how Olympus sounds when the whole pantheon is present, but still unspectacular. The _G3_ album is great for guitar live album fanatics, but casual fans will likely think "Maybe I had to be there."


Eric Aaron now has a favorite square when playing "Battleship". He is a graduate student, a guitarist for Ithaca-based modern rock band The EFFECT, and not pictured on the cover of _Fire Garden_.

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