Concert Review: Shrapnel Records Night at GPL!

Guitar Player Live! 2009 was a rousing success by all accounts. Kicking off Friday night with the Shrapnel Records concert at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, attendees were treated to amazing performances by Michael Lee Firkins, Chris Duarte, and Ritchie Kotzen, plus a very special award ceremony. 
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Firkins opened the show with a fiery version of “Manic Depression,” expertly backed up by Stu Hamm on bass. When Firkins went into his own material, however, that’s when the crowd really saw what this guy is about. He has a fluid, unique style that combines rock, shred, blues, bluegrass, and country. Firkins’ whammy bar technique is mind-blowing, bending and glissing into chords and double-stops in a way that almost makes it seem like he’s playing slide. He did, in fact, play slide at the end of the show for a killer rendition of “Come Together” and “Voodoo Child,” possessing a bold command of the style that had subtle echoes of Duane Allman and Jeff Beck.

After Firkins’ set, GP’s Mike Molenda, Art Thompson, and Matt Blackett presented the first annual Jason Becker Award for Courage, Creativity, and Inspiration. The award fittingly went to Mr. Becker himself. Becker is an impossibly talented guitarist who found himself on the covers of guitar mags as a teenager, and then got the most coveted gig in rock a few years later when he followed in the footsteps of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai to play with David Lee Roth. Shortly thereafter, Becker was diagnosed with ALS and saw his dazzling technical ability slip away. Undaunted, Becker continued to compose music and inspire people, and has done so for his entire career, including the nearly two decades he has lived with ALS. After tributes from Shrapnel boss Mike Varney, and former bandmate Marty Friedman, Becker’s father Gary read the acceptance speech written by Jason himself. The speech was an unbelievably eloquent, humble, and moving statement that brought many in the crowd and backstage to tears. This award will go on in perpetuity and be presented to players who embody the qualities in the award’s name, but it’s tough to imagine that there could ever be a more deserving recipient than Mr. Jason Becker.

The man with the toughest job Friday night was probably Chris Duarte, who had to follow Jason Becker. But Duarte did it with gusto, combining mean Stratty licks with bluesy vocals. He’s also able to blend in jazzy chromaticism and uptown chord work much like a horn section. His lead work is fearless and his attitude relentless, much appreciated by the guitar-crazy crowd.

Former Mr. Big guitarist Ritchie Kotzen headlined the show and proved himself to be a very well-rounded musician and songwriter. He seduced the crowd with his vocals, which bring to mind Prince and Chris Whitley at times. Kotzen’s strongest voice is on guitar, and his DiMarzio loaded Tele sounded great and was capable of a lot more tones than meet the eye, thanks to his dynamic volume knob manipulations. This guy can shred and somehow sound funky and melodic at the same time.

All in all, an unforgettable night, and this was just the first day! Stay tuned for reports on days two and three, as well as photos, video, and more.