Words and Pictures: Robert Cavuoto
Steve Vai has assembled the perfect traveling guitar extravaganza for his Generation Axe Tour which includes Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi. Tonight’s four-hour show at the Sand’s Casino in Bethlehem, PA was roughly their halfway point on their 33-date tour; a tour that has taken them from Oakland, CA, on November 7th, across the U.S., and then back to Los Angeles for their final show on December 12th.
Generation Axe is the brainchild of Steve Vai which he first started back in 2016. It’s a celebration of all things guitar and showcases the musical prowess and diversity of each guitarist! The excitement of tonight’s show begins as all five guitarists appear on stage to perform “Hocus Pocus,” it’s a precursor of great things to come!
Tosin Abasi of the progressive metal band, Animals as Leaders, opened the show performing on his eight-string guitar. Tosin’s form of music is a unique blend of contemporary metal with extremely melodic grooves, bizarre time signatures, and progressive solos. Each song is a highly technical composition and played with laser precision.
Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme joined Tosin Abasi at the end of his set. Looking exactly like the first time I saw Extreme at the Cat Club in NYC in 1989, Nuno remains a relevant and outstanding guitarist who never disappoints. His set included a medley of Extreme songs and solos including “Decadence Dance,” and “Get the Funk Out” which he sang. It turns out Nuno is also quite the comedic character with a sharp wit. This became evident before performing a highly complex arrangement at lightning speed on the acoustic guitar called “Midnight Express,” as he started to tease the intro to Extreme’s monster hit, “More than Words” only to stop short telling the excited crowd “not tonight!” He also cracked on his guitar partner’s illustrious abilities while providing a little self-deprecating humor about his own playing as well. The crown jewel in his set was “Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee” off Extreme’s Pornograffitti CD. It was awe inspiring to watch him combine his signature techniques of speed, dexterity, melody, and reach into a pyrotechnic display of guitar playing. It was as if he was saying “I’m Nuno Bettencourt and you can’t ignore what I’m doing up here.”
At the end of Nuno’s set, Zakk Wylde appeared on stage with arms extended high. Slung over his shoulder was his Wylde Audio Barbarian guitar which hung from a monstrous black studded strap fitting for a true Viking from Hell. He performed “Sideways” by Citizen Cope with Nuno while trading lead vocals. Ravenous worshipers of Zakk rocked back and forth, screaming his name as he tore through a series of cover tunes including Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” and “War Pigs.” Zakk is a savage player with a powerful and aggressive style of playing and singing. He is a quintessential metal guitarist of our generation who can bash out riff after riff with sheer brute force. Zakk’s offered a nice transition from Tosin and Nuno’s style of playing.
Steve Vai came out for his set like a fireball opening his set with “There’s a Fire in the House.” Steve is one of the most gifted guitarists in the world. His tonal palette is expansive, colorful, and unique as he draws upon 50 years of practical experience. As he played, he assaulted his guitars in ways that most people would never think possible. It soon became apparent that his guitar was an extension of his body and the sounds emanating from his guitar wasn’t necessarily guitar sounds, but harmonic textures. The passion, desire, and pain expressed on his face while he played were the lyrics to his mesmerizing songs. His playing was edgy yet tasteful and fluid.
When Yngwie hit the stage, he brought hell in tow. A monstrous tsunami of sound and amplification powered by no less than 10 Marshall amps and countless cabinets stacked high. It was loud, and it was aggressive. This Neo-classical guitar god pummeled the audience with everything he had from the first note to the last one. It was a cacophony of glorious notes and sounds set to a smoke-filled stage bathe in orange and red lightning. Throughout his set, there were high kicks, spins, while twirling his Fender Strat around his body. This was done while never missing a beat. Those who know Yngwie know the color of his music is different than the rest of the guitarists tonight but it falls within that category of intensive metal; and intense it was. It was an all-out assault on the Bethlehem crowd. When it was said and done, and the smoke cleared, the audience was left gasping wondering what just hit them. It was a groundswell of blazing guitar playing done in epic portions
Kudos to the Generation Axe band comprised of Pete Griffin on bass, Nick Marinovich on keys, and drummer JP Bouvet, who did a tremendous job tonight maneuvering, navigating, and keep up with the stylings of these guitarists. They were the unsung heroes of the night allowing these talented musicians to soar.
There were multiple jams through the evening like Steve and Yngwie performing “Black Star” and when all the artists met on stage at the end of the show for a tribute to Queen’s Freddie Mercury with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” All vocal parts in Queen’s song were played on guitar. The guitarists ended the show with Deep Purple’s “Burn” as Yngwie took on lead vocals.
Generation Axe is the meeting of different musical minds, backgrounds, and approaches but in the end, it was a very cohesive evening of masterful playing. Tonight’s show offered a lot of surprises as many of the songs they performed together or solo seem uncharacteristic of how you may have seen them perform with their respective bands. If the goal was the expand people’s minds to appreciate different musical approaches, then tonight’s show was a success on multiple levels.