Steve Vai’s latest excursion is as much a massive thrill ride as it is an endurance test — for band and audience alike
It’s been twenty years since guitar mastermind Joe Satriani piloted the first G3 Tour, an endeavour that featured a total of three guitar wizards driving a multi-hour set that showcased some truly intense musicianship. On that tour, and on nearly every one that followed, Satriani was accompanied by his protégé, Steve Vai, who brought his own brand of sorcery to pair with Satch, alongside whichever third player was enlisted each year. In 2016, however, Vai apparently got the notion that three guitarists playing simultaneously was not a big enough challenge to pull off, and kicked off the “Generation Axe” tour which featured no less than five of them — spanning genres, geographical locations, and playing styles. With a titanic set that sprawled out for over 3 hours, it was a testament to the true meaning of “instrumental guitar music” and how such a term is a remarkably small pigeonhole, given the amount of players that work within it and the breadth of their expertise.
For the show, each of the players was given their own 3-4 song set, along with a “baton handoff” piece wherein they were joined by the next guitarist in line. To begin, and to end, the show, all five axe-wielders took to the stage for a song or two, cranking the spectacle up as high as it could go. This was where a particular drag of the show was notable: there were absolutely zero breaks between the performances, and no walk-off for the encore, making the full show a bit of an endurance test. Oddly (perhaps to be mindful of such a phenomenon), it was also a fully-seated show, though many stood up to throw up the horns or do a standing shake-in-place as the players worked their magic.
Animals As Leaders operator Tosin Abasi was the first to take the stage, and by far the most creative with his playing style besides Vai himself. While not terribly animated, Abasi churned out a myriad of beautifully complex math-melodies that shimmered as much as they shredded, filling the Fox Theater with a brilliant spectrum of sound. Abasi’s pieces were all from the Animals As Leaders catalogue, most from 2014’s The Joy Of Motion, and he was joined for his fourth number by the next performer of the night, Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. The two men, and their flurries of fretwork, cranked up the energy of Abasi’s set, and he was all smiles as he effortlessly traded riffs with Bettencourt while the latter threw himself into his own onstage antics.
Bettencourt brought the wild, manic energy to the stage that had been missing from Abasi’s set, and although his predecessor had a marvelous show on the technical side of things, Bettencourt was definitely in full showman mode when he got onstage. Also like Abasi before him, Bettencourt ripped through a fearsome set of Extreme songs, adding his own long, wild solos to each one, and also adding vocals to a few of his performances. Bettencourt definitely looked like he was having the most fun as he hurtled back and forth across the stage, but remained peaceful and precise as he was joined by Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde for a thrilling cover of Citizen Cope’s ballad “Sideways”.
Wylde’s appearance marked the biggest stylistic change to the set thus far, with the massive metal titan selecting three choice jam numbers from Black Sabbath, the Allman Brothers and even Jimi Hendrix, and providing both vocals and sprawling, roaring solos that stretched on past the ten minute mark. Sensing that the crowd might have been tiring from sitting for an hour, Wylde climbed over the side house speakers and into the empty pathways between the seats, still shredding away with every step he took as he crossed to the back of the theater, turned around, and returned (after another titanic solo, of course!).
Unlike his predecessors, Wylde was not joined by Swedish neoclassical player Yngwie Malmsteen; instead, Wylde provided a brief introduction, and Malmsteen marched onto the stage amid a massive storm of fog and light. This was the point of the night where the skill, speed and complexity of guitarwork shot into the stratosphere, and Malmsteen absolutely knew every bit how skilled he appeared onstage — and played it up as high as possible. With the longest set, the most pauses for cheers, and providing the most poses and over-the-top actions, Malmsteen walked onto that stage like the show belonged to him, and his demeanor hardly conveyed any doubt. This was, of course, to say nothing of his playing, which was absolutely dizzying in its intensity. Even Vai, who eventually joined the “Viking from Brooklyn” (as he termed Malmsteen) onstage, settled into a slow groove and let Yngwie keep driving for the rest of his set.
After the leviathan of a set that had just transpired before him, it was excellent to watch Steve Vai take the stage and absolutely come into his element with full force and vigor. Spanning across everything that had been seen that evening, Vai’s set was full of jams, solos, and wild technical excursions, all spearheaded by a man who threw himself into every single note that he played. Joined by Abasi for his first song, Vai was absolutely no spotlight hog, and nodded the younger player to the front of the stage a few times during their song. It was a breath of fresh air after Hurricane Yngwie, even though it was its own kind of massive storm.
After nearly three hours, the biggest spectacle of the evening was ready for a repeat (and longer) performance, and Vai and Abasi were joined onstage by Wylde and Bettencourt for the close of the show. With such a stylistically wide spectrum of musicians, it was mesmerizing to watch all four play in sync and throw solos back and forth with the greatest of ease. Malmsteen showed up (albeit with his own spotlight) for the final song of the night, a Herculean performance of Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” that saw all five guitarists nudging each other into a line to crank out simultaneous solos for a mindblowing display.
I’d wanted to see all of these guitarists in their own right, so to me, it was quite the feat to behold all five playing together — both in their individual sets and together onstage. It was definitely a test of endurance, for the spectators as well as the playerrs; a 3-hour set with no breaks to speak of is one hell of a thing to get through, and I can only imagine the load that was placed on the stage crew for such a task. Such a gigantic show, however, will likely appeal to a very specific set of music fans — those who absolutely love to see three hours of brilliantly-skilled guitarists tearing into their sets like there’s no tomorrow — so if you find yourself in that camp, this is definitely the one to see.
All photos are © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.