Report by Chris Martin (Writer/Contributor) Myglobalmind Webzine
Steve Vai is a really good guitar player. No, seriously, hear me out on this. I’ve been a fan of his since his days with David Lee Roth. I never was much of an EVH fan (thought then and still believe he’s overrated,) so when DLR brought in this wunderkind guitarist named Steve Vai I had no clue who he was. And the things he could do with the guitar! Then I found out he had previously played with Frank Zappa, who at the time was someone I was just starting to gain an appreciation for, and instantly made me like him even more. Then he released his quintessential solo album Passion and Warfare.
That album, as well as Satriani’s Surfing With the Alien, stand as the best shred albums ever. They both contain incredible guitar work, but both also have some of the best songs either has put out ever, if you ask me. Out of the two, Passion and Warfare found its way into my tape deck more often than the other. There was just something about the brilliant solos and intricate riffs that just captured my attention. I have followed his career up until the release of The Ultra Zone, and then I kind of stopped. No real reason, it just happened. I suppose a lot of that has to do with the fact that I was getting into all kinds of different stuff after that, and he just slipped through the cracks. I’d always wanted to see him live, but he was never within a good proximity of where I lived much of the time, so I missed out on that as well. Clearly when I heard he was playing in Charlotte it was instinctive that I would go.
Thing is after I bought the ticket I never truly got fired up about seeing him. I had even contemplated selling the ticket, especially when I realized my girlfriend wouldn’t be able to go with me. Though I knew I would see Brandon at the show I figured I’d wind up being by myself, and despite the fact that I will do it, I don’t like to. Plus looking at one of the setlists it appeared he was playing mostly stuff from his new CD which I had not heard until the night before the show, and then it was only a couple tracks. To be honest, the songs just weren’t doing it for me. I think that may be the thing about Vai: when I think of Vai I think of Zappa and when I start thinking of FZ I’m hard-pressed to not feel compelled to listen to him instead. After much inner debate I said to hell with it and decided to go. Since I was going it alone this time, and Brandon and his wife weren’t going to be able to get together prior I just ate at the house then made my way with a quick stop at the gas station then BiLo for catfood and batteries. I actually made it to the venue with plenty of time to spare, and managed to get there without getting lost for a change.
Once the doors opened I went in, scoped out the shirts opting not to purchase, then made my way up front of the stage. I did this for several reasons: 1. Since I’ve become quite the amateur photographer I wanted to make sure I got some good shots; 2. Fillmore has no seats without paying extra or begging for a stool and sitting in the back like I did at the Get the Led Out show; and 3. If you’re going to be in the presence of greatness, it’s best to stand at its feet. According to info Brandon got early from the club, the opening act was to go on at 7 and play 30 minutes, then Vai would take the stage at 8:30. Obviously something got mixed up as Beverly McClellan didn’t go on until about 7:30. Since she was working the show by herself, there would be little to breakdown therefore not causing much issue with Steve taking the stage on time.
Beverly McClellan, for those not in the know, was a contestant on the show The Voice. I’ve never watched this show, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, until I researched her, I had no idea who the hell she was. So I was like, “Quick! To The Youtubes!” There I discovered that she was kind of an unlikely contestant for the show. She’s bald, heavily tattooed, and definitely doesn’t fit the mold per se. But the voice that came from her body was astounding. She was doing Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” and really wailing on it. Sadly she didn’t win the contest, but Steve Vai happened to catch her at another function he was at and was impressed enough with her to have her sing some stuff on his new album The Story Of Light and join him on tour. Prior to my research I had considered skipping out on her. I’ve got knee surgery coming up September 5th and I knew that I would wind up having to stand for most if not all of this show, so I was considering minimizing my time. I’m so glad I didn’t.
She is a phenomenal performer. You can tell, for one, that she has a true love for what she’s doing and thankful for any opportunity she’s given to ply her craft. Top that with the fact that she is utterly humble about her talent. She switched from acoustic guitar to keyboard and was joined on stage for a couple songs by Vai’s electric harp/keyboardist, which was apparently an off-the-cuff idea they had tonight. Both ladies worked very well together. And McClellan knew she was working a tough crowd and was doing everything in her powers to draw us in, and doing a damn fine job of it. Watching her tonight is exactly why I love live music, and love music as a whole: just the natural talent possessed by a person who is truly doing exactly what she wants and should be doing with her life. She finished her set at 8.
Fifteen minutes later, after moving a few things, little Stevie Vai took the stage and just unleashed his brilliance on that stage. I really had no idea what to expect. Brandon had mentioned that he saw Steve a couple years ago and said it was the best concert he’d ever seen. Of course, Vai is Brandon’s guitar hero. I’ve only seen one other so-called guitar shredder live, Yngwie Malmsteen, and I was more enraptured by his singer Jorn Lande (who remains the greatest singer I have ever seen live…ever.) I just wasn’t sure if there would be a show involved or if he would just be standing there wankering away on the guitar. Suffice it to say, there was plenty of show involved, and really wish my buddy Roger had reconsidered going to this show. He would’ve been blown away totally. I know I was. Remember when I started this off by saying Steve Vai was a really good guitar player? Sure you do, you’re keeping up just fine. I’ve heard so many people disparage Steve’s music because it’s weird or self-indulgent or simply just a bunch of crazy sounds and not him actually playing. Yes, a lot of these accusations he is guilty of, but most importantly he can actually play. This is why he does so many bizarre things with the guitar- he transcends the average ability to play and has to create his own thing. Watching his fingers dance nimbly along the fretboard was like watching a magician perform his final trick, but Steve is doing his final trick throughout the whole show. There was not a moment that the crowd was bored and not watching every single move he made musically.
The musicians supporting him are awesome as well. The drummer and bass player are beasts on their respective instruments. And his stunt guitarist (a title he once held in Zappa’s band many moons ago,) though nowhere near the caliber of Steve, is quite a player himself. And I made mention earlier about an electric harp player. I ain’t shittin’ ya folks, he’s got a lady that has a portable harp she wears strapped to her side that does all kinds of stuff. I don’t know that I have ever seen anything like that before. As for my setlist fears, that went away pretty early on. I think the information I was reading was coming from misinformed people or else they just weren’t as up on Vai’s catalog. He did do a great deal of stuff from the new album, which I have to say the songs are so much better live than they are on the CD. It seems the two or three different lists I had seen prior ended up being combined together, plus there were some songs I wasn’t expecting at all. There was a healthy amount of Passion and Warfare which pleased me greatly. He also brought back out Beverly to perform “John the Revelator” with them, which was outstanding!
Then he did something that never crossed my mind as an option for the evening: he did an acoustic set. This is where, more than any period of the night that he proved how good a player he was. You can’t hide on an acoustic guitar, and he did some stuff on it that simply blew me away. For one, he played “Sisters” which is a beautiful song. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, let alone hearing. Then his drummer comes out carrying a quad set all decked out in lights and skulls (and other assorted electronic drums and cymbals) to join in the acoustic set. He and Vai went back and forth, and then he was left on stage alone. Once he finished with the quad set up he went back to his set and completed a pretty astounding solo.
This was followed by Steve coming out in this lighted suit playing this crazy looking guitar that through the fog and darkness looked like one of the aliens from the movie Alien. Not long after that, and I’m not sure if this is something he did spur of the moment or if this is something he does every night, he said the band was going to write a song on stage right before our eyes and wanted an audience member to help out. Steve selected this young boy from the front row and had one of the Fillmore’s staff lift him over the barricade and put him on stage. He asked the kid his name and if he played an instrument, which his responses were Robert and no. Vai then asked the kid to come up with a drum riff, which the kid promptly said, “I don’t know.” Steve went with that anyway, instructing the drummer what to do to play a drum line based on a kid saying “I don’t know.” And he followed suit with the rest of the band taking a statement from the kid and instructing the members how to play each spoken sentence.
When he got to his part he asked if it was OK to embellish on his part since, of course he was Steve Vai, which got the crowd laughing. Then, right before our eyes, these five musicians took some simple statements from a kid and with some very minimal theory instructions played their new song. It was actually pretty awesome and something that kid will likely never forget. Steve closed the show with a couple more songs, including a beautiful and powerful version of “For the Love of God,” which is likely my favorite Vai song ever.
So after two and a half hours of some of the most breath taking guitar pyrotechnics I’ve likely ever seen, he humbly thanks the audience for coming out and hoped they enjoyed it and that was the end of that. I don’t know that I would necessarily say this was the greatest concert I’ve ever been to, but it was pretty damn incredible. I’m pretty sure this is a show that anyone would be able to appreciate. I hope to see him many more times over the years just to see if this night was a fluke or if indeed he is that amazing. I think he’s just that amazing. So until next time my peep’s always remember: Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator.