Fox Theater, Oakland, California
Story By: Walter Morgan
photos by: Kevin Graft
“The Generation Axe show is a unique performance of five fiercely talented guitar players coming together to create a 6-string extravaganza that is sure to amaze and delight,” Steve Vai.
I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd concert of an exclusive 27 date U.S. 2016 Tour. Five of the best guitar players of our time on one stage. Playing individually, as well as a mixture of them playing as a duet, and as a five member cohesive unit. The five Guitar Gods, in ascending order as you will see them are, Tosin Abasi, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. Each artist will play music from their own catalog, as well as showing off their own talents of free styling, with extended leads, and multiple guitar techniques. Some people may think that this will be a long lead from start to finish, but no, far from the truth, I found this performance to flow, from one artist to the next, by each player playing 2 or three songs individually, and then the next guitar player would come out and join in together, and do another song, and then hand off the stage to his partner, and so on until you just have Steve Vai the Headliner, so to speak. But before we get to the show, lets have a look at the 5 Guritaitst themselves, and their remarkable history;
The Guitar Masters
Born: New York, USA
Signature Guitar: Steve Vai Ibanez Jem
Vai started his recording career in 1980 playing with Frank Zappa and has since recorded and toured with Alcatrazz, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth and Public Image Ltd. Since 1983, Vai on his own has released Multiple studio albums. As well as having recorded with artists such as Mary J Blige, Spinal Tap, and Ozzy Osbourne. Additionally, Vai has toured with live-only acts G3, Zappa Plays Zappa, The Experience Hendrix tour, as well as headlining international tours. He is a composer, singer, songwriter, producer, and actor. Vai was voted the 10th “Greatest Guitarist” by Guitar World magazine. The GRAMMY Award-winner has sold over 15 million albums and toured the world as a solo artist.
Born: Stockholm, Sweden
Signature Guitar: Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Signature Stratocaster
Malmsteen started his recording career in 1983 with Steeler, Alcatraz, G3, and Rising Force, he has also released multiple solo studio albums. He is TIME Magazine placed him as one of the top ten guitarists of all time. He is a song writer, and producer. As well as a multi-instrumentalist. He has over 25 million in album sales.
Born: Bayonne, New Jersey, USA
Signature Guitar: Gibson Zakk Wylde Les Paul Custom Bullseye, And Signature Gibson Flying V
Wylde started his professional career in 1987 with Ozzy Osbourne for many years, also with Pride & Glory, Steel Dragon, and his own band Black Label Society, and has has appeared as a guest guitarist on many albums. He is a singer, song writer, producer, and actor. And having sold Millions of albums with Ozzy.
Born: Praia da Vitória, Terceira, Azores, Portugal
Signature Guitar: Signature Washburn Nuno Series N4
Bettencourt began his professional career in 1985 with Extreme, and has played and recorded with many other Artists, and bands such as Rihanna, Steel Panther, Dweezil Zappa, and Toni Braxton, Steven Tyler, Paul McCartney, Janet Jackson and many others, and also has released Solo albums. He is a singer, songwriter, and producer. His band Extreme has sold over 10 Million albums.
Born: Washington DC, USA
Signature Guitar: Tosin Abasi’s signature guitar, the Ibanez TAM 100
Abase began his professional career in 2000, and has played and recorded in Animals as Leaders, Reflux, Born of Osiris, Darkest Hour, TRAM, and PSI.
Backing Band For Generation Axe is Pete Griffin (Zappa Plays Zappa) on bass and Nick Marinovich (Yngwie Malmsteen) on keys and Matt Garstka of Animals as Leaders on drums).
The Fox Theater In Oakland has been beautifully remodeled, modern but retaining its old vintage look, As I was entering I noticed that this was an older mature crowd, and with most the artists playing around 50 years old, give and take, so was most the audience.
This was a reserve seated event. An absolute advantage for an older crowd, such as myself. While anxiously awaiting in my seat, I counted the dual pair of flying PA systems 14 on each side, 28 total, and I could see the glowing radiance of red power buttons on the Marshall heads 24 in total, stacked on top of 10 Marshall cabinets, plenty of power for guitar players that can be picky and touchy about power and sound. And I have to say the lighting was perfect, a mix of accent, and mood settings, rather than bigger flashy over the top productions. And in this crowd were many a local guitar player, I counted five musicians I knew, just getting to my seat, and another sat right next to me.
The lights went dim, and when the lights came up, all five super stars were on the stage and opened with “Foreplay”, a classic Boston song, which each member trading off a lead part, while the others played the rhythms. This song was a perfect choice, setting the stage for going back in time a bit, to an era the crowd was very familiar with. And giving the audience a small glimpse of each guitarist, a tease really. Seeing all five at once was a highly levitating experience.
The lights dimmed and only Tosin Abasi remained, with the Bass player and Drummer. Abasi an intricate technical guitar player, best known for his Progressive Metal band Animals As Leaders, played 2 songs from their catalog, “Air Chrysalis” was the first song which show cased him and his guitar, a unique sound of and very technical instrumental, his guitars look very different, weirdly shaped, giving him and his music a more complex feel. After hearing him play awhile, I knew he was the youngest, but he played so many years ahead of his true age, critically acclaimed in a very short time. His playing on this night seemed a combination of progressive and Jazz infused, lots of hammer ons and pull offs, I also noticed he played parts with just his thumb, picking away at ease. At 33 to take the stage with these other older more mature and well known guitarist, has a lot of pressure coming with it. But nothing in his playing showed anything but brilliance of his craft. His second song from AAL, was “Physical Education”, and he was soon joined by Nuno Bettencourt, doing this song as a duet. Both styles of guitar mingling and splitting easily, kinda funky with some abrupt changes, thrown in. Nuno adapting to Tosin’s song and pace perfectly. As the song ended, Abasi was cheered and he handed the stage off to Nuno, as he praised Abasi and his performance.
Nuno dressed casually in a black tank top and jeans, strolls stage center, with his Washburn N4. He will play and sing three Extreme Songs, “Get The Funk Out”, “Flight of the Bumblebee”, and ” Suzi(Wants Her All Day What?)”. Nuno to me is more of a guitar gunslinger, he shoots off his hip, and is very in tune with the crowd. Nuno’s playing style is a mix of Funk Metal, Alternative/Glam Hard Rock. His well rounded playing style is up and down, fast at times, free flying, but he brings you along with melody and his very good voice. When he played an Acoustic Guitar, he put a lot of feeling into it. I have never seen Extreme, but I have heard of Nuno, his reputation, precedes him, and tonight I see why. He made a joke about having conned the promoters into paying all five by the note, which after tonight would be a King’s ransom. He also said that when asked to do this, it was an honor, it was not so much about playing his solo performance, as it was for him more about the collaboration with the group on stage together, and what they would bring joined. The 4th song was “Sideways” by Citizen Cope, and a Big man took stage beside him, long blond hair, with a huge beard, dressed in a denim Biker vest, with blue jeans and big black boots, a Viking looking Biker, Zakk Wylde. They both traded off singing and playing, it had a bit of soul combined with rock. Again Nuno walked off to a cheer from the crowd, as Zakk acknowledged him to the audience.
Zakk Wylde best known for his many years with Ozzy Osbourne, whose style is more straight Heavy Metal, with a Southern flair, who is used to the stage, and commanding it, which he did. Zakk played in a sea of knee high fog that covered the stage. He immediately gave a solo that was building up, traditional hard rock and a perfect intro into Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.”. And Zakk sang his version of Ozzy, that would do him proud. And for the first time in the night, the audience got into it more, people standing and digging the Heaviness of his Sabbath rendition. His next material, was very Jimin Hendrix at times, so 70’s Rock, Fused With Blues,” And this lead right into the Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post” which plays right into Zakk’s strong Southern rock style. And Zakk to the surprise of the crowd, walked down each side of the stage, and went far up both isles, playing to masses, face to face. The longest Guitar cord I’ve ever seen, trailing him with a roadie reeling it out behind him. And this gesture really entertained the fans. Everyone was smiling, and thinking Wow, this is incredible, in itself, having just walked by you so close, playing away, and he was really on fire this night! When he finally gets on stage again, and yells out, “Generation Axe, can you dig it!” Next was “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, and Zakk threw out all the licks, to a now standing crowd, and during the finale of this song, Yngwie Malmsteen appeared and played dual leads together, Zakk maintaining the more traditional side of the song, and Yngwie at the same time adding his signature very classical infused leads. A uniquely weird mixture, that in unison, just worked brilliantly. They both embraced, and Zakk again was cheered heavily as he exited the stage.
Yngwie Malmsteen, my personal favorite guitar player, has taken Neoclassical Music, and infused it into Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, and no one can do it as effortlessly as Yngwie. And tonight as it should be, he emerges from clouds of stage smoke, guitar wailing and singing. Only he can take Classical scales from another age, and let his fingers fly up and down the neck of his white Strat. He blends and dips, up and down, putting out notes that speak to you and sing, no lead singer needed here, his guitar, does it all. He’s dressed in black, and very slim, and in shape than in recently past tours, his shirt open to his waist, with black leather pants and boots. He’s fast, but you can hear every note, often his tone sounds gothic opera, perfect tone matched with his awesome stage presence. I love it when he high kicks the crowd in his patented way. As he goes into his Rising Force album material, “Far Beyond The Sun” which to me is the peak of his brilliance, watching him play guitar, is like Beethoven playing the piano. They were both just meant to do it. And tonight Yngwie and his guitar are playing an opera just for us, fluid and fresh, his guitar very moving and setting the mood. And he builds his performance to a crescendo of flawless fluidity. And the keyboardist really accents his music, both of them sound tight, and combined gives him his sound we have come to love. The way he plays, unlike anyone else, his fingers fly, his picking precise, at times one handed while he waves his hand, to his own tempo, like a conductor, directing his own soundtrack. I thought he was faster than the rest, picking and sweeping us into amazement, like lightning in a jar. I’ve heard Yngwie is God, and tonight he is very godly! As he goes into his final song from Rising Force “Black Star”, its again seems so easy for him, and for maybe one other person, and that is…….Steve Vai, who comes out to join him, trading leads back and worth, Vai adapting very well to Malmsteen’s song. Maybe the best two guitarists in the world playing before your eyes on one stage. And Vai still adding his own flavor to this classic piece. Both are applauded heavily, for me it was the best duet of the night, two mega stars shining bright!
Steve Vai, is a virtuoso guitarist, leading composer, great producer, and a master of guitar technique and tone. One of the best guitarist of our time. And deserving to be the main headliner for this tour. Dressed in a fancy dress button up shirt with a black vest, and black leather pants, his hair cut short, wearing glasses which give a scholarly look. He has Tosin Abasi with him, and they play Vai’s “Building The Church” , Vai to me is very like an album he wrote, Flex-Able. He can do so many things on a guitar, and is like a Superhero. I watched in amazement, sometimes Jazzy, unorthodox at times, very moving at others. He can play laid back, but continues to just flow. Playing different styles of music at will. A true master of his craft, playing his own creation an Ibanez Jem strat, with the trademark built in handle. He plays with flowing movement, with flair and feeling, and goes into a Jazz based song that could fit nicely into the 60’s or 70’s. And adds tremolo bar accents, and does wonders with the volume control. He can make the guitar speak in different tongues. He gets the most out of guitar as possible, as it screams away. At one point he takes his glasses off, and starts hoping around playing freely, and really into it, with facial expressions that mere his talent. At one point he jokes “You may leave here with a note hernia”. He then comes out with his guitar that has blue lights all over his fret board, adding to his illusion. His whammy bar is incredible, hammering amazing, playing for him is just so normal, that he throws in many different techniques, that are out of this world, like a magician doing tricks, you wonder how he did that. Chords and solos mixed in a non expected sequence at times,like a spell that only he can weave. It’s truly just pleasure to see him perform.
So now we are down to the finale, Vai, Wylde, Bettencourt, and Abasi come on stage to play Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, and this foursome makes it a memorable one. This extended lead version, was the highlight of the night. Like Four dive bombing planes, laying down a barrage of notes, in deadly succession. Also notable that Nuno jumps on a second drum kit, and plays with considerable vigor. Throwing his sticks away in the crowd, to join in on guitar, on the building songs climax, to a cheering audience, knowing that the evening is winding down. And then the last song, Deep Purple’s classic “Highway Star”, suitable title considering the now five Allstar Players, as Yngwie now comes out to join them. And of course Steve Vai directs them from stage center. And as in the words of the song itself, what can be said of Generation axe?……She’s a killing machine.
If you get a chance to see this limited engagement that is now on tour, do yourself a favor a get some tickets, it’s more than I had hoped for, and will stay with me a life time. One word to describe this night……Phenomenal!