Review by Jason Guest and photos by Samantha Knight
A virtuoso on the instrument and a master at whatever musical style he turns his hand to, like his early teacher and G3 accomplice, Joe Satriani, Vai’s music bestrides that line between the technical and the musical, occasionally veering one way or the other and always delighting some whilst confounding others. Album number eight and his first since 2005, this year’s The Story of Light – or to give it its full title, The Story of Light “Real Illusions: …of a…” – is the second instalment in Vai’s Real Illusions trilogy, and like that album is no real far cry from what many would expect this plank spanker to produce. “Based on the amplified exaggerations of a truth-seeking madman who sees the world through his own distorted perceptions”, the mostly instrumental album has got as much in terms of melodies, riffs and dirty grooves as it has songs. Yes, songs. There’s the usual dose of shred of course, but Vai’s got it nailed as far as balancing it with taste goes. And so, in support of this latest release, Vai brings his dexterous plank-spanking digits and his vast array of holy-shitballs-did-he-really-make-that-guitar-do-that-o-ma-gah! trickery to Wolverhampton, the very epicentre of guitar virtuosity. Why, only last week did I witness a man busking on these very wintery Wolverhampton streets with no less than five, yes, count ‘em, five strings on his guitar. They weren’t in tune, but at least he had ‘em.
Vai’s stage is an ostentatious as his music. Resplendent in the pseudo-spiritual and profoundly pink imagery that graces his latest album cover, a light beams down from big Vai’s big beady eye to scan the crowd before the show begins. Cue the music and the band emerges, as does a glowing Guinness advert that hovers across the stage. Nope, wait, it’s just Deborah Hanson-Conant’s electronic harp. Phew… Before his silhouette appears in the mid-stage smoke, Vai’s presence is felt in a torrent of notes ejaculated from his trustily tumescent white Ibanez. And dazzlingly magnificent in what looks like San Franciscan post-LSD flamboyant clothing, Vai takes a pause for applause and gives a Vulcan salute to the crowd. Yep, he’s on another planet, unless it’s just a ‘V’ for Vai… no, he’s not that self-indulgent is he? Anyway, racing around the stage for ‘Racing Around The World’ with a flock of photographers racing around beneath his feet for the best that a three-song shoot can offer, Vai bestows upon us mere mortals, us poor earthbound wretches a show of consummate bombast.
From the new album, ‘Velorum’ is all riffs and dive-bomb chaos and harmonic splendour and has Vai voguing (I know…) in the mid-section breakdown. While his band jam out the intro to ‘Building the Church’, Vai takes the time to not just thank the crowd but to flatter us too, making the hopefully-humorous threat of five hours of music and deadened derrières just that little bit less painful. Effortlessly pouring out song after song, Vai toys with the photographers and banters with the crowd and makes for an entertaining evening. Of course, Vai gets a solo spot amid the many other solos he takes. Well, it is his show after all and he’ll blinking well do what he likes, even if that means dressing up like a psychedelic Darth Vader with lasers shooting out of his finger tips and a suit that’s lit up like Blackpool illuminations.
Not wishing to let his collection of fine musicians miss their place beneath his beady eye, each of them get a solo spot. Long-time ally Dave Weiner gives us an acoustic piece that is as impressive as it is sensitive and passionate; a few sales may well be made on the merch stand this eve, methinks. Like a ballerina wrestling a wardrobe up a flight of stairs, Deborah Hanson-Conant poses and grimaces while she fingers the strings much to our delight and entertainment. After a mid-set acoustic set with Vai singing and with “more tattoos than Heinz has beans”, drummer Jeremy Colson appears for his solo spot wearing a huge, sparkling strap-on. Drum kit, that is. There’s more entertaining banter between he, the maestro, and the talking skull poised at the end of his rhythmic pleasure-giving device. But what’s this? No solo spot for bassist Philip Bynoe? Oh well. I s’pose we’ll have to appreciate his deep, deep, very deep bass grooves and unfeasibly large quadriceps in other ways then won’t we?
But before we lament the absence of Bynoe’s bottom end, in his infinite wisdom, Vai drags up three muppets from the crowd for the improvised ‘Build Me A Song’. When he asks each of them to sing, hum, warble, or purr-fer-christ’s-sake a rhythm or a melody, it rapidly becomes apparent that neither rhythm nor melody features in their individual or collective vocabulary. It’s the first time I’ve seen a crowd blush. A sea of maroon heads disappear behind a wave of hands as cries of embarrassed ‘Nooooooo!’s are hastily muffled and swallowed. Despite having to let one of them play his guitar – a metal riff and a vague attempt at a lead break – Vai deals with it faster than Usain Bolt with diarrhoea and moves the band into an extended improvisation. A collective sigh of relief goes up and Vai makes a quick note to self: drop the audience interaction bit.
And so, two – not five – hours after Vai beamed down from whatever planet he was on, set closer ‘For The Love Of God’ goes down a storm and following the encore of ‘Taurus Bulba’, the crowd leaves. And written across the faces of the guitar geeks in attendance this evening are those immortal words: “I quit.” You can see it on their faces. “Bastard!”; “Fifteen years I’ve been playing and I still can’t do any of that shit!”; “Don’t think I’ll bother with that sixth string… or a tuner…” Yep, Vai’s fucked it up for guitar sales again this Christmas…
Set List: Racing The World, Velorum, Building The Church, Tender Surrender, Gravity Storm, Guitar Solo (Dave Weiner Acoustic), Weeping China Doll, Answers, The Moon And I, The Animal, Whispering A Prayer, The Audience Is Listening, Harp Solo (Deborah Hanson-Conant), Rescue Me Or Bury Me, Sisters, Treasure Island, Salanders In The Sun, Pusa Road, Drum Solo (Jeremy Colson), The Ultra Zone, Frank, Build Me A Song (Improvised With Help From The Audience), For The Love Of God
Encore: Taurus Bulba
- Visit Steve Vai’s website here
And you can see more of Samantha’s shots from the show here: