Review: Steve Vai at the Verizon Wireless Theatre

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I had the opportunity to see Steve Vai last night and it was quite the shred-fest. My friend, James, and I agreed that in all the years of shows we had been to (and he and I, collectively, have seen literally hundreds of concerts), neither of us had ever seen quite the display of pure technical guitar ripping as was on display at Vai’s show.

First, let me just say that Verizon is a really nice place to see shows. I’ve only been there a couple of times and I was impressed.

Second, it was a very interesting mix of people in the crowd from typical hard rock musician types to young kids with their parents to older business-person types – mostly male, mostly white. The women that were there were either young girls (14-16-year-olds) wearing Vai shirts (odd considering the style of music) or women there willingly or otherwise with their boyfriends/husbands.

Vai’s opener was guitarist/dobro-ist (is that a word?) Eric Sardinas. He played an electric dobro and did an interesting mix of blues, hard rock and instrumental stuff. He had a decent voice and was a good performer, though it was a tad on the “rock star” side for a mostly instrumental musician. He had a solid rhythm section – particularly the drummer – and his bassist was a dead ringer (at least from a distance) for Bob, the next door neighbor on That 70’s Show.

After Sardinas and a brief intermission, Vai came out accompanied by what you would pretty much expect from a guitarst whose resume includes both Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth – a big, loud band, huge sound system and lights that could blind small children.

His line-up of musicians was the first thing that struck me. His third guitarist (yes, THIRD) was a young guy named Dave Weiner. His job was mainly to hold down all the rhythms for the songs – not an easy task in and of itself – and he also had a few solo moments.

The drummer, Jeremy Colson, was not only a chops monster, but played with an attitude more punk than fusion. The guy was covered in ink and looked more like a surf punk than a rock musician, but he was a terrific player and is best described as thunderous.

The other two musicians in the band are really what made this a treat. Playing keyboards and second guitar was Tony MacAlpine. MacAlpine was one of the shredders from the legendary Shrapnel Records of the early and mid-80’s that included Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and others. MacAlpine has a fusion group now with Bunny Brunnel (bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums) reminicent of Tribal Tech. MacAlpine is one of those rare individuals who is as comfortable on piano as he is on guitar and it showed last night.

Lastly, on bass was the much-heralded rock bassist, Billy Sheehan. Sheehan was one of my idols growing up. My first REAL concert was at the original Cardi’s when I was 16 seeing Sheehan and his band, Talas, open for Yngwie Malmsteen on his first US tour. What I liked about Sheehan wasn’t his incredible technique and playing skill, but rather the WAY he played – with strength and in the tradition of grear rock bassists like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle.

This was a LONG and meandering show. The band kept the audience interested by mixing up rockers with slower things and giving everyone a chance to solo. There was even an acoustic set with Vai strapping on a rather thin-sounding acoustic and sitting on a stool while other band members played various instruments from acoustic guitar to percussion to electric sitar.

The last 3 or 4 songs had to be the highlight of the show including Zappa’s “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Momma,” with a visit from Sardinas.

The other songs included lots of trading of solos and one point where all three guitarists and Sheehand stood at the front of the stage and traded shred moments. That culminated in a frenzied unison line played by all four over about 16 bars and ultimately ending with each player holding a note on the person’s guitar next to them with their left hands while keeping 32nd notes going with their right hand on their own instruments – pretty over the top stuff.

I half expected to find myself bored through the two-and-a-half-plus hours of the show, but I felt pretty enteretained the whole time. There is always a time when something this self-indulgent can feel like overkill, particularly in rock music because of its requirment that the performers be both entertaining on stage and captivating instrumentalists.

Unlike a jazz show where players stay mostly rooted in a single spot on stage and trade solos in rounds while a polite audience sits and tables and claps appreciatively after each solo, rock shows of this nature have to be as fun as an arena show but musical enough to make you forget there is no singer about 80 percent of the time.

Vai seemed completely at home playing and talking with the crowd. His virtuosity on the instrument makes his peformance seem absolutely effortless – remarkable considering he is also running around on a large stage trying to peform physically while playing the guitar. In his quirkier moments, he seemed to be channelling Jeff Beck and hearing him play acoustic showed that, despite his undeniable skill on the electric, he still has shortcomings if they are only tiny one’s at most.

Most of all, Vai and the band seemed genuinely happy to be playing. This was only the third show of the tour and, by the looks of it on the tour schedule, one of the largest with approximately 2000 filling Verizon. He mentioned several times that he was touched by the number of people that made it to the show – maybe an omen considering he had to move his Austin show from Antone’s to La Zona Rosa because it oversold.

Maybe the funniest moment of the night came when he sat down with the acoustic and asked if we minded if he sing a little. Vai is no vocalist as evidenced by the two or three songs he managed to get out during the set. The crowd was happy to oblige, but Vai joked, “I know some of you might mind, but I’m over that.”

With that he showed just how comfortable he was on stage and in his own skin. That confidence, the monster chops and a back-up band worth of legend was enough to make two-and-a-half hours of instrumental music not just interesting, but entertaining.

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