The root of his approach is the connection between the physics of music and sounds, to the metaphysics of our spiritual and emotional response to the world around us.
For those of you not familiar with Uli Jon Roth, it may be most appropriate to describe him as a guitar guru. Those who already know the former Scorpions guitarist’s playing and musical approach would easily rally around that portrayal. Experiencing one of his live shows, or getting carried along with one of his recordings, goes much further than just good guitar playing—and by good guitar playing, I mean a virtuoso level of mastery well beyond the flawless execution of riffs that transcends into the realm of a deeper expression and connection with the audience. His ability to draw such emotion out of the notes stems from the root of his approach, which is the connection between the physics of music and sounds, to the metaphysics of our spiritual and emotional response to the world around us. The aspect of Uli Jon Roth’s artistry that draws me most near is his ability to understand the connection between certain sounds and notes and specific colors, times of day, times of year, position of the zodiac, and even the harmonic resonance of each of our individual life paths.
Please don’t get me wrong: This is not high-minded, academic stuff here. I am talking about what is mainly deep down funky music, Hendrix style, and with the same type of earthy connection to the universe and expansive creativity. That is the whole difference between Roth and other shredder-type or bigger-name guitar heroes. It is about the unfiltered soulfulness he squeezes out of each note, all over harmonically rich textures and chord changes, but always based around the type of groove that just gets the unstoppable head bob going. Before you know it, you are rocking side to side with the music, getting swept away with the soaring melodies and vibrant images painted by the poems of words woven around the notes.
As a good entry point for you to find out what Roth is all about, check out “Electric Sun” from 1979. His music has evolved a lot since then, but that song will give you an idea of what he is all about, both musically and lyrically. One other thing to make no mistake about is that we are talking about a rock show here: a hard rockin’, guitar-driven good time built on funky grooves with rich and varied arrangements, putting forth a positive message of our connection to the world, all topped off with virtuoso guitar playing the likes of which this planet has never seen—and, of course, on some kind of futuristic, high-tech modern marvel of a guitar. He’s a messenger openly telling us of visions he has seen, using the language of music to lead the way. So, as I said, guitar guru Uli Jon Roth.
I think I’ll follow…
I had the privilege of seeing Roth perform on two consecutive nights at different venues as part of his Ultimate Guitar Experience tour, along with the lovely and innovative Jennifer Batten and the crisp and smooth Austin-inspired shred stylings of Andy Timmons. In my chat with Roth, we talked a bit about how the stops on the tour were chosen. What he has found over the years is that the same towns and venues tend to continue their music scenes, and that it is rarer for new destinations to be viable based on the fan base and support of the local media. Most importantly, it hinges upon the individuals who own and operate the venues and bring around music they enjoy, or people within the local music scene who share their enthusiasm with each other and the younger generations.
These two shows in Chicago definitively fit into these categories. Reggie’s Rock Club on State Street, a little south of the Loop, is kicking and thriving by the myriad of up-and-coming acts streaming through the place year round, always with the support of other bands and musicians that come to check out the scene and stay current. The food from the wood-fired grill is good there, too. There’s also a vinyl record store upstairs with a massive collection to lose yourself in.
The Arcada Theatre in Chicago suburb St. Charles, Illinois, is of the other type where the owner, Ron Onesti, goes to great lengths to solicit and bring to his place rock icons and music legends of our shared youth. He brings in everything from Motown, pop singers, classic rock bands, jazz instrumentalists, ’80s metal groups, comedians, and much more. Check out the upcoming lineup at www.oshows.com and you will immediately hear in your head some of your favorite songs and familiar one-hit wonders, along with a few acts you will be surprised to find are still on the road. (The subtext here is that if we don’t get off the couch and go see these bands at these places, they will go away, along with the music…)
Roth says that he loves to tour America so much because the audiences are so willing to go along for the ride with impromptu improvisations. In comparison, in some places in Europe, the audience tends to prefer artists who get to the point straightaway. Roth also recounted to me his positive experience with the Monsters of Rock Cruise, where he had the chance to share the stage—and some much-needed downtime—with other guitar greats, such as Steve Vai.
When I asked about where he finds the genesis for new ideas, he described how he tends to draw his current inspirations from people he meets, and other art forms other than music. As a product of the time period in which we find ourselves, our perspectives are always inadvertently augmented from observances of the subtle social shifts taking place, both generationally and geographically. Roth noted that it seems, in part, that today’s youth are overloaded with data and detached from one another, and, to some extent, the artistry and beauty of the world. Everything is experienced through the filter of the computer, often resulting in a dulling of the senses and suppression of the need for interaction and unified revelry, in preference of isolated voyeurism.
Roth has, in his own right, inspired and personally mentored hundreds of guitar players and musicians through the Sky Academy. This is a type of group master class covering some guitar techniques and music theory. Mostly, though, it centers around a slide show presentation that is an outline for the artist’s upcoming book on the transcendence of the physics of sound into the ethereal experience of music.
Roth also said that they are preparing a new live concert DVD, entitled Tokyo Tapes Revisited, from the material of the current tour. The DVD is culled from performances, in homage and reference to the classic Scorpions video released in 1978. The current band lineup is in the process of solidifying some new songs for an upcoming studio release, as well. I caught an earful of some of the new material during sound check; they are poised to again take it to yet another level.
The Live Show
In keeping with Roth’s spirit of supporting the young artist of today, he generously offers the stage to the second guitar player of his band, David Klosinki, who opened the show with a performance of a composition of his own entitled “Electric City.” This boyish-looking German kid can really play and write; great tone, too.
First up for a full set was Andy Timmons, and he brought it right between the eyes. Again, if you are unfamiliar, listen to his tunes “Electric Gypsy” or “Cry for You,” and you will see why he is a favorite among serious guitar players. He has a magnificently bright, clear tone, but with the undertones of warmth without the rasp. His writing approach is very accessible and easy on the ears. He seamlessly moved between a variety of playing styles, from powerful and moving ballads, past an Yngwie-esque, neo-classical metal mania, and on to a breakneck speed, country-inspired flurry of chicken pickin’. A good time, indeed.
I have also known and respected Jennifer Batten from her early work: First, as the hot chick rippin’ on the guitar in Michael Jackson’s band, and then through her widespread instructional videos, which were being eaten up by little shredders everywhere, trying to figure out how she was doing her unique signature two-handed tapping technique. Her time with guitar legend Jeff Beck brought her the worldwide acclaim of the more thoughtful and innovative writer and performer she had become. Batten now conceives of her music in conjunction with video clip compilations she creates herself, and then plays along to the synchronized screen and backing tracks on stage. It is a very entertaining approach, and one that helps to absorb the richness of the jazz fusion/progressive rock arrangements and changes. Over the complex rhythms and harmonies, she weaves beautiful, fluid, and unpredictable lines of improvised and well-planned melodies. She had one tune I was particularly digging called “Cat Fight,” in which she gets these seemingly feline screeches screaming out of the amps. Batten’s playing has achieved the delicate balance of being very intellectual, but with a spunky and light-hearted style.
Roth’s band can only be described as a bunch of bad-ass players. Front man John West brings a welcome aesthetic and energy to stage, along with his incredible vocal range. (Watch for him with the touring group Black Knights Rising, dedicated to preserving the music of Ronnie James Dio. Dio hailed from the same small town of Cortland, New York, as West, where he hosts a radio program that has since been picked up in syndication on satellite.)
Drummer Richie Monica is the newest addition, and as a fellow man from Jersey, only the second American in the group. He has the skills to be a chops monster, but also the good sense to stay in the pocket and fit his fills to the music. This is no small feat, requiring responsiveness to react to the rise and fall of the stage dynamics, while filling the room with a reliably funky grove. Keep in mind the drummer and bass player Nico Deppisch were on the hook to perform with all four groups starting at 7:30 p.m., including the epic encore of the whole lineup jamming on Jimi Hendrix tunes, wrapping up sometime near 1:30 in the morning.
Besides having great chops on the Hammond B3 organ sound, keyboardist Corvin Bahn also had a chance to display his classical prowess during a moment of equipment difficultly, where Roth asked him to play some piano while the line buzz was found. Niklas Turman is a top-notch guitarist in his own right. He did an amazing job of filling in high vocal parts and doubling fast and complex lines on the guitar with Roth and with West on the harmony part, all playing 32nd-note, three-octave arpeggios in unison—so way cool.
My favorite tunes of the night can mostly be found on the Scorpions Revisited disc. Roth & Co. did a magnificently powerful version of iconic and mystical Scorpions classic, “The Sails of Charon,” as well as a raucous and rowdy version of “Catch Your Train.” Equally upbeat were rockin’ run-throughs of “Pictured Life” and “All Night Long.” There were inspired performances at each corner of the stage on the more contemplative and complex music of songs like “Crying Days,” “Dark Lady,” and “We’ll Burn the Sky,” all of which provide Uli with ample opportunity to explore the impossibly high range of notes one can reach only with an instrument such as his Transcendental Sky Guitar, meticulously crafted by Dean Guitars. In fact, Elliot Rubinson, the CEO of Dean Guitars is also a thumping bass player, and, being in the house, shared the stage for a few tunes at the Arcada show.
Roth’s sound is unmistakable, not only due to his masterful techniques and note choices, but also to the sound he gets out of his gear. Dean Guitars and Rubinson were instrumental in supporting the production and ongoing perfecting of Roth’s newest series of ultimate custom guitars. The Sky Guitar is unique from all other electric guitars due to some very carefully crafted and engineered innovations. First of all, the neck is 30 frets, allowing access to notes much higher in range than you can get naturally on any other guitar. The fretboard is scalloped, which means your fingers never touch wood above the 5th fret. The guitar is self-tuning with Tronical Robo-tuners, and has full range of EQ, a high output 100dB gain boost volume pot, split coil pickups (including one under the heel of the neck), gold wiring; there’s also a gold-plated brass pickguard, and illuminated led fret markers on the top of the neck. They recently made a small run of 50 of these for the public; I think the price tag on one of these bad boys is over $12,000 (totally worth it; I’ll take two!). One last thing about the gear is about how great the Blackstar Artesian amps sound live. This company also takes its work very seriously, as I watched the company tech painstakingly record and analyze and make notes about the performance of the product: much respect.
The Live Show
After much anticipation, I see Roth finally reach over to the double neck Sky Guitar that has been quietly taunting me. As he breaks into a luscious Spanish soliloquy, the timbre and tone catch me by surprise: The top neck is actually a classical-style nylon string guitar, but with a low B 7th string. Niklas Turman gently joins as a duet, and they playfully and skillfully interact and improvise. This is a welcome change from so many performances I see that do not allow for variation from show to show. This is all leading toward the iconic introductory chords to the epic “Fly to the Rainbow.” Singer John West just nails this tune! The words and melody are soaring and inspirational: Think of Ian Gillan’s early work with Deep Purple—specifically, songs like “Child in Time,” with its incredibly high and long note and an operatic, but slightly villainous tone. There is a section in the tune for the audience to follow along with a simple few “ah” notes, and West really brought out the best of the crowd and generated a lot of enthusiasm. Man, I’m getting chills just thinking about it. (Did I say already to go buy the Scorpions Revisited disc immediately? Go ahead and open another browser and pick this up off of Amazon, and then come back and finish reading.)
The Album: Scorpions Revisited
Seriously, this two-disc set is something for which I have been waiting a long time. (You have, too, and just didn’t know it.) This is an album of great guitar tunes that are upbeat, funky, and fun, yet at times introspective and inspirational. A few more of my favorites from this album are “Evening Wind,” “Polar Nights,” “Hell Cat,” “Drifting Sun,” and the outstandingly epic “Life’s Like a River.”
So many guitar players have passed across my ears, and Roth is the guy who has been able to truly capture and recreate the essence of Jimi Hendrix’s music and feel. I’ve seen endless numbers of guys play Hendrix tunes, but this is the man who can actually tap into and channel the muse—from beyond the fretboard. It is few and far between that a piece of music can hit me on so many levels and reenergize my passions for all things in the world, and even rarer to come across a whole collection of tunes that resonate with the pulse of the world around me. I think you will find the message and the sounds resounding within yourself, as well.
Go get the disc: You will dig the grooves. Go see the live show: You won’t believe the high fidelity of his guitar rig: Go pick up one of the DVDs: You’ll be blown away by the musicianship of the band. Go buy the mp3 for any or all of the songs I mentioned above: You will put them in rotation.
But most of all: Go open up you hearts and ears and listen carefully to what the world is whispering: You will see there is a connectedness between all things and all peoples through the commonality of music. Uli Jon Roth will show you the way. | Derek Lauer