A caravan of diesel pushers rolled into the Wine Country on Sunday, Oct. 7. Their mission: deliver legendary guitarist Steve Vai to his concert at the Uptown Theater in Napa.
The concert was in support of his latest release, The Story of Light. This is the second installment to what will eventually be a conceptual trilogy that began with Real Illusions: Reflections from 2005. Since I got the newest album a few weeks ago, it has become one of my daily drivers–The Story of Light is brilliant! And I must say, out of the thousands of shows I’ve seen over the years, his show at The Uptown was the best I have seen …maybe, ever!
Audio clip: Steve talks about The Story of Light and explains the concept behind this trilogy…
Supporting Mr. Vai on this tour is his newest discovery, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Beverly McClellan. Very impressed by her performance on the first season of NBC’s The Voice, Steve asked her to sing lead on the track “John the Revelator,” on The Story of Light. And it’s no wonder why she was chosen. With a five-octave range, her voice is turbo-charged with enough gritty, bluesy soul to put the best in the Bible Belt to shame. As the opener, all she needed to get the job done was her acoustic guitar, an electric piano, and Kevin the guitar tech, who was called out to jam on a couple songs. At the end of her set, the crowd was on their feet, delivering a well deserved standing O.
Steve Vai hit the stage with fingers blazing and looking every bit the artiste in an outfit reminiscent of Jimmy Page’s infamous Dragon Suit. He was accompanied by a “dream team” of musicians: Dave Weiner (guitar and keyboards), Philip Bynoe (bass), Jeremy Colson (drums), and Deborah Henson-Conant (electric harp and keyboards). Their set, which would run more than three hours, kicked off with “Racing the World” and “Velorum,” two fast-paced, driving faves from The Story of Light. By the end of those songs, I was stunned!
Guitarist Dave Weiner, a graduate of Guitar Institute of Technology and a constant in Mr. Vai’s band since 1999, was given the spotlight after the slow grooving, dirge-like “Gravity Storm” from the new album. Dave played a beautiful acoustic solo, which Mr. Vai announced was from Dave’s own new acoustic album, A Collection of Short Stories: Vol. 1. Dave is a very accomplished, well rounded player. Whether on acoustic or electric guitar, or even keyboards, give this man a melody, and he will play the hell out of it! Dave has been Steve Vai’s chosen wing-man for 13 years. And if that isn’t a testament to his talent, I don’t know what is!
Lights down low, fog billowed subtly and spotlights took aim as Mr. Vai and harpist Deborah Henson-Conant met at center stage for an incredibly beautiful guitar and harp duet on “Weeping China Doll.” An electric harpist jamming in a rock band has got to be a first, but with the precedent now set by Deborah’s strong performance, I doubt it will be the last time for this. You’d think the burden of this gorgeous yet unwieldy instrument strapped to her tiny waist would be difficult for her, but no. She was rockin’ just as hard as the rest of the band, while plucking angelic melodies that added yet another layer of dimension to the music. Beverly McClellan was welcomed back to the stage to sing “John the Revelator”–another powerhouse performance by this gifted vocalist. At this point, I was speechless. The only word or thought I could conjure was…WOW!
Like Steve Vai, three-time Grammy nominee and Emmy Award-winning bassist Philip Bynoe is a graduate of Berklee College of Music. His substantial resume (http://www.philipbynoe.com/resume.html) is a direct reflection of his talent. Philip is a master of the rhythm strings. Whether he plays an acoustic standup bass, a four- or six-string electric bass, or a cello, it will be a thing of groovin’ beauty. One of the most notable highlights was on “The Animal,” when Philip’s hardcore funk bass line combined with Steve’s heavy, sleazy guitar melody.
Jeremy Colson, who initially made his fame drumming for Billy Idol, is a force to be reckoned with–an animated player and human metronome with tons of technique and finesse. Disappearing from his drum riser at one point during the set, he re-appeared on the main stage minutes later with a “strap-on” drum kit, fully equipped with LED lighting and a glowing, talking skeleton head that had no shame, taking full advantage of the opportunity to rip on Mr. Vai. The “strap-on” may have looked like a toy, but in Jeremy’s capable hands, it became a monstrous machine.
Fueling my suspicion that Mr. Vai might truly be part alien, the man then re-entered the stage dressed as an alien for “The Ultra Zone.” His welder’s mask and Vulcan-style tunic were adorned with LED lights that he beamed at the audience while his fingers blazed on the strings. In all honesty, if anyone else tried to pull this off, he would go down in a blaze of “cheese-ball” shame, but for Mr. Vai, it worked. When you get to a certain level of mastery, the latitudinal boundaries of what you can get away with do expand. No one gets to Steve Vai’s level without constantly testing, pushing, and forging for new, original ground. Without a doubt, Mr. Vai owns a lot of real estate in that department!
Toward the end of the set, the band did something I’ve never seen before, and it was very impressive. An audience member was brought up on stage to help write a song that the band completed and performed right then and there. In mere minutes, the band had put together a song that could stand up to those on Steve Vai’s albums. Now, how innovative is that?
“For the Love of God” and “Tarus Bulba” made for the perfect ending to this tremendous three-hour set that received another enthusiastic standing O! Let’s hear it for O’s all around – Woo Hoo!
And now for something completely different…
A philanthropist at heart, in 1988 Steve formed the Make A Noise Foundation, a non-profit that funds other non-profits in musical education pursuits. When the show was over and the venue empty, the BAM team met with Steve for a very special purpose. He was kind enough to sign a guitar for a very deserving charity, Guitars Not Guns. The guitar will be sold at auction to raise funds to support music programs for at-risk youths. (see below for auction link)
Audio clip: Mr. Vai talks about his philanthropic endeavors and his parents’ support for his music as a young man.
Over the past three decades, thousands of interviews have been published about Steve Vai’s gear, his technique, his genius. However, there is much more to the measure of this man than his inhuman ability to finesse strands of wire to emulate the myriad of noises running rampant in his head. He is a wise, humble, deeply spiritual man on an evolutionary journey toward higher wisdom and truth. Over the years, his music has been a direct reflection of the mile markers while on the path to his unknown destination. In his own eyes, he is neither a genius nor the virtuoso as he is often described. He’s just doing what comes naturally, which in his eyes isn’t worthy of being considered an achievement, and therefore, not worthy of those lofty descriptors.
If nothing else, there is one thing that has been clarified: there are guitar players…and then, there is Steve Vai!
We’ll leave you with a quote from guitarist Jason Becker about his friend and predecessor in The David Lee Roth Band:
“I have always appreciated and respected Vai for making unpredictable and oddly beautiful music. He puts so much thought and care into his notes. He is a wonderful person, too. I love that wacky cat!” — Jason Becker
Band Members websites:
- www.hipharp.com/ (Deborah Henson-Conant website)
- For info on the Guitars Not Guns auction: https://sites.google.com/site/guitarsnotguns501c3/