Newly recruited Whitesnake guitarist Joel Hoekstra has been turning a lot of heads in recent years with his guitar playing, but he’s a long way removed from being the new kid on the block. Early in his career, Hoekstra worked steadily on the rock theater scene, logging over 1,400 shows with the Love, Janis
musical that was dedicated to the life and career of Janis Joplin (both the off-Broadway production as well as the touring run that brought the show to a number of markets, including Cleveland). He was playing eight days a week and also gigging with Big Brother & the Holding Company (guitarist Sam Andrew was the musical director for Love, Janis
) and the Turtles. The guitarist says that working with the veteran musicians was a really valuable experience.
“It was a good learning tool, because it really teaches you that the gigs don’t always have to be about you, and it teaches you to be a pro and just be a well-rounded musician,” he says. “There’s a lot of shredders in bedrooms out there that don’t quite understand how to get through a gig without having it be those moments on guitar. So that stuff was really valuable for me and with the Turtles thing, I had to learn all of the different harmony parts, so that really helped with me being a background singer. There were lots of musical benefits that came from that stuff.”
Hoekstra grew up in the Chicago area and in addition to his theater work and early bands, spent time playing with former Survivor member and songwriter Jim Peterik as part of the band that played Peterik’s star-studded World Stage shows, gigs that would open more doors. “Those shows gave me the opportunity to play with a lot of people, man,” he says. “I mean, getting to play the hits with Don Barnes from .38 Special and Rik Emmett from Triumph and Alan Parsons, Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon, Kip [Winger] and Tom Keifer from Cinderella, [Peterik’s] just had so many great guests over the years — every time these guys would come in, you’d get to meet them and play their hits with them. It was a great opportunity.
Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy was one of the people that Hoekstra met while playing the World Stage shows.
“That gave me the opportunity to play in Night Ranger,” he says. “That was really something that changed my career. I remember learning the ‘(You Can Still) Rock in America’ eight-finger solo when I was 14 years old and practicing it in my bedroom with my eyes closed. Then there’s that weird middle period of the ‘90s where you go, ‘Man, I can’t believe I used to do that for hours everyday,’ and then suddenly everything came full circle and I couldn’t have been more glad that I practiced all of that stuff when I was younger. I have a lot of respect for [former Night Ranger guitarist] Jeff [Watson] and Brad [Gillis] and I had a lot of respect for filling Jeff’s shoes, just in terms of, I understand how important those classic solos were and I did my best to try to give the fans a classic Night Ranger show every time out.”
He has a similar reverence for the material that he’s now playing with Whitesnake and his timing couldn’t have been better, because joining up with the group in 2014 as they were in the midst of constructing what would become The Purple Album
, a tribute to frontman David Coverdale’s years with Deep Purple, meant that Hoekstra would get to dig deep into the catalogs of both Purple and Whitesnake for the inevitable tour.
“It was pretty killer to start getting the setlist ideas and realize you can pull from two great catalogs,” Hoekstra says, with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a lot of fun!’ What guitar player wouldn’t want to play this Whitesnake catalog? It’s just got such great guitar work on it. It’s really a guitarist’s dream to play this stuff. Whitesnake is a fantastic guitar gig.”
Similarly, Hoekstra enjoyed getting to deconstruct the material on the new album, including heavy rock classics like “Burn” and “Stormbringer” and also the opportunity to venture into new musical territory with some of the songs while still paying proper homage to the catalog.
“David kind of handed me the ball quite a bit on the acoustic stuff on ‘Soldier of Fortune’ and ‘Sail Away’ to come up with cool acoustic arrangements,” he recalls. “The thing that was cool for me in terms of being able to be creative on the album and I guess really just flex our creative muscles, period, was the fact that [fellow Whitesnake guitarist] Reb [Beach] was basically going to be covering the riffs on most of these songs, so it gave me an opportunity to think about, ‘Well, what would be another part that you would play if it were a two-guitar band back then?’
“We were obviously going to lean less heavily on the keyboards than the Deep Purple version,” Hoekstra continues. “So I kind of had a fun job — it was like, ‘Well, what would be a second rhythm part that would fit in on most of this stuff?’ And of course, we got to do our own things with the solos — that goes without saying — so it was really a lot of fun. In a lot of ways, it felt just like doing an original album,” he chuckles. “Really, it was all about making sure that everything you added was tastefully done and I had a great time.”
The Purple Album
tour finds Coverdale and the band serving up a hefty number of Deep Purple songs from the album in addition to classic tracks from the ‘Snake catalog. The shows have been playing to rave reviews and Coverdale was even joined by his former Purple bandmate Glenn Hughes at an early tour stop in Beverly Hills for a stomping run through “Lay Down, Stay Down.”
“We were going through that stuff with guitars unplugged with David and Glenn singing together for the first time in a really long time, just jammed into this tiny room together,” he says. “We were all kind of standing right on top of each other. That was kind of cooler than the actual moment of him coming out on the big stage for everybody. Glenn was so nice to do that and it was an honor to have him up there with us, really.”
Hoekstra has nothing but the highest praise for the experience he’s had working with Coverdale.
“He’s really great to work for. In terms of the album, he was just totally open-minded and let everybody do their thing with this great material,” he says. “He didn’t hold on too tight. He really just let us do our thing and was very supportive. He’s a great musician and he’s got a great sense of humor, man. He’s just a super-fun hang.”
Fans can have their own “Purple” experience when Whitesnake plays Hard Rock Live as part of its ongoing U.S. tour. The U.S. dates will be followed by shows in Japan, Europe and Ireland. Hoekstra has heard murmurs of potential further live dates in 2016 and says Coverdale has “batted around a couple of ideas in terms of recording projects.”
So it seems likely that Hoekstra will be busy for quite a while (which is nothing new- considering that the guitarist is usually juggling a few gigs, having played with both Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the long-running Broadway show Rock of Ages
in recent years in addition to his gig with Night Ranger). But for now? “I’m just happy to be here,” he says. “That’s a cliche line, but it’s true. I’m just happy to be here and playing this music and I love the Purple stuff and of course the Whitesnake stuff, so I’m just really digging it. It’s like a great chemistry out here right now.”
Whitesnake, The Answer, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 5, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd, Northfield, OH, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $$42.50-$79.50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.