As a serious music fan, I became obsessed with rock music as a kid, thanks to the likes of Kiss and Alice Cooper and their theatrical brand of rock and roll. This, in turn led to my love of Van Halen and the ‘hair bands’ that followed, so, of course I first discovered Steve Vai through his work with David Lee Roth. The way Steve’s guitar ‘talked’ in DLR’s Yankee Rose to open 1986’s Eat ‘em and Smile album, his flamboyant style and moves, his triple-necked heart shaped guitar in DLR’s Just Like Paradise video…clearly my tastes were more about the entertainment factor rather than the technical wizardry of a guitar virtuoso.
Despite me never seeking out instrumental technical music to add to my music collection, one of the first CDs I owned was Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. After attending an information session at a high-end hi-fi store in Adelaide many years ago, to promote the latest trend in audio (the CD), I got to choose a bonus CD with the purchase of my first player. I randomly chose that particular CD. It’s the only instrumental rock album I’ve ever owned, and I loved the way the guitar was able to take care of the melodies you would usually expect from the vocals.
Heading to Adelaide’s Hindley Street Music Hall, I had no idea what to expect from this gig and I suspected it could be challenging to write a review for such a show without being overly well-versed in all things technical. If you’re here to read a report on Steve Vai’s techniques and musical hardware, you have come to the wrong place!
As there was no support act, I arrived shortly before the headliner’s two-and-a-half-hour set began. Straight away, I noticed that the crowd was predominantly male and seemed to be lacking the usual drunken rowdiness before a typical rock show. I suspected many were here to see a master at work and wanted to focus, rather than to stage-dive and sing along.
The set started with Avalancha from Steve’s latest album Inviolate. This was a great groove-driven tune that showed off the famous Steve Vai signature sound perfectly. Joining Steve on stage was his new side-guitarist Dante Frisiello. Initially Dante appeared to be here to simply lay down some basic rhythm guitar behind Steve’s dynamic leads, but as the night went on, Dante was given more space and time to showcase his own incredible lead playing (‘Dante Unchained’ as Steve put it). On bass was Philip Bynoe. Like Dante, Philip was a solid backing for Steve’s leadwork but was also given plenty of opportunity to showcase his own incredible bass skills with solo stage time later in the set. Completing the rhythm section, and the band, was drummer Jeremy Colson, proving that every member of Steve Vai’s band is a top shelf musician. Jeremy’s double-kick drum solo during the set was as incredible as the guitar work shown throughout the show by the other members of the band.
I did notice when the band started the set that there were no mic stands to be seen. There were obviously no singing vocals to be heard tonight but I hoped to hear some interaction between Steve and the crowd. Thankfully, after a few songs Steve was handed a microphone and was able to converse with the crowd. This continued every now and again. He mentioned how long the tour had been and told everyone that when they played the Brisbane show before this one, Steve had been mixed up and greeted the Queensland crowd by saying ‘Hello Adelaide!’ (at the end of this set Steve finished the show by jokingly saying, ‘Goodnight Melbourne!’).
Following the opening number was the heavier Giant Balls of Gold which really brought the whole band in to create a bigger sound and get the crowd moving. Having said that, for most of the night I noticed a difference between this gig and a regular rock show with vocals. The crowd watched the stage intently and nodded their heads along in appreciation rather than really moving in time to the music. Nobody seemed to want to miss their view of Steve Vai’s fingers on his fretboard.
The set went on with a mix of tunes from Steve’s solo albums, all with accompanying visuals on the big screen behind the band, to compliment the audio. There were psychedelic images, dramatic images…whatever suited the song at the time. My personal favourite was the very detailed and mesmerising video of the conception of a child from the wiggling sperm, to the growing foetus, to childbirth, ending hilariously with the close-up image of a very young Steve Vai’s face. Another highlight of the use of the screen was when some of the film Crossroads was shown before Steve launched into some of his music from his appearance in the film.
Later in the set, Steve revealed his 3 neck Ibanez guitar on which he played his track Teeth of the Hydra from his latest album. This involved Steve playing twelve-string, six-string AND bass guitar, all in the one song! This is just one of the reasons to see Steve Vai live!
As the set drew to an end, there were a couple of tracks from Passion and Warfare covered. For the Love of God covered more laid back and soulful territory, while Liberty was more Epic in vibe. As Steve launched into these closing tracks, he said, ‘If you know the melodies, sing along!’ Despite this show being instrumental in nature, it was this comment that sums up Steve Vai for me. He plays the guitar as though he is singing through his instrument. Not only is it possible to sing along to his guitar melodies as though they were vocals, but watching Steve’s face and his mouth move, as he plays guitar, it’s clear that his very expressive playing is his way of singing.
Despite playing for over two hours, when the band left the stage they were recalled loudly for an encore, which they quickly returned for before the house lights came on and everybody filed out of the venue onto Hindley Street again.
I’m certain a lot of the crowd at this gig were aspiring guitar heroes who wanted to see one of the world’s best rock guitarists in action but even for those who weren’t, Steve Vai and his band certainly had enough charisma and talent to keep the entire room entertained for the duration of this show.