Vai begs us to be back in our seats in time for the second set, as it starts with a number he just loves to play…
Catch him if you can! The UK leg of guitar wizard Steve Vai’s world tour only includes four dates in mainland Britain. I managed to catch the sole London gig at the Palladium on May 7th, and I’m glad I did. The man and his axe are mesmerising on video, but it’s the first time I have ever caught one of his gigs in the flesh, as it were, and it’s a whole different experience, as he presents such a friendly vibe, genuinely communicating with his fans. The band is minimal, just Steve and three others, who all look as if they’ve come out with the wrong band – dreadlocked bassist Philip Bynoe clearly belongs with the funk fraternity, while mad-eyed drummer Jeremy Colson is all punk, dressed for the weather in dayglow knee-length swim shorts and tattooed to the hilt, his platinum Mohican haircut bobbing in time behind the kit. Second guitarist and sometime keyboard player Dave Weiner, bearded and hatted, would look at home in a southern boogie combo. But put them all together on one stage, and the sound is as rich, full and ultimately complex as would be expected from the house of Vai. There is no support act for this show, but the band elects to play two sets with a half-hour intermission, something I have not seen for a while.
They kick off the evening with Avalancha from the new Inviolate album, before settling into the chugging metal groove of Giant Balls Of Gold, which as far as I can tell, has never appeared on any studio album. So far so good, it’s loud, the light show is great, and Vai’s fingers are flashing around the fretboard in a blur, but the sound is a bit mushy until he dons a clear-toned hollow-bodied Ibanez, which cuts through the fog like a knife. From now on, whichever guitar comes out, whether clear or overdriven, every note can be heard, which is a real engineering achievement when there are so many of them.
The first real showcase comes with the up-tempo Lights Are On from his previous album. Aside from some stupendous guitar work, this one includes a mad three-way contest between Vai, Bynoe on six-string bass and Colson on the drums, who are all trying to copy each others’ riffs at top speed, then we are treated to a tremendous solo from Bynoe and a screaming guitar duel between Vai and Weiner.
The more restrained Candle Power from the new album is another highlight, with Vai bending individual notes within the chords, giving a springy, twangy gloss to his style, emphasised by the fact that he picks this one bare-handed instead of his usual plectrum style. Minimal production for this number means that Weiner can leave the stage for a few minutes; Vai returns the favour by disappearing afterwards, and Weiner has the stage to himself. No surprise to learn that he’s an excellent axe-slinger in his own right, doing a solo spot on a metallic red Stratocaster. With the whole band reunited for the final number of the first set, a cheer of appreciation greets the complex finger-tapping intro to Building The Church from Vai’s 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections. Vai begs us to be back in our seats in time for the second set, as it starts with a number he just loves to play…
…Which turns out to be the excellent Greenish Blues, one of the highlights from the current album. Recognisably a slow blues, but with a freakish time signature, this one is also finger-picked and incorporates some subtle harmonies from Weiner on second guitar. I should have mentioned that a huge screen behind the band has been showing atmospheric and dramatic images in support of the music, but now it unexpectedly plays a clip from the 1986 film Crossroads, which featured Vai as sinister guitar hero Jack Butler. We are then treated to Bad Horsie, which is based on a piece from the movie. This is followed by a time-lapse video of a developing foetus while the band play the short 2007 number I’m becoming – at the end, as the baby starts to be born, a photo of a grinning youngster’s face is superimposed over the top, and Vai gleefully declares into the mic, “That’s me!”
The beautiful and melodic ballad Whispering A Prayer also includes a bit of audience answerback to some short (and mercifully easy) guitar riffs, then Weiner dons an acoustic 12-string to accompany Dyin’ Day, before Colson takes over for a succinct drum solo. The final three numbers of the set all come from the more melodic end of Vai’s repertoire; the superb and catchy Zeus In Chains from Inviolate, and then at the other end of the time-scale, Liberty, the brief overture from 1990’s Passion And Warfare. And while we’re in a Passion And Warfare mood, what could possibly bring an end to the set but the stupendous anthem For The Love Of God, which of course ended with a standing ovation.
Vai returns to the stage to ask the crowd’s permission to play one encore – which was granted, unsurprisingly – and they finish the night with the thudding Taurus Bulba from 1996’s Fire Garden. Some impressive harmony shredding ensues from the two guitarists, before Vai gets the front row involved in working his whammy bar. There’s plenty of audience appreciation when he invites a young kid up to the stage and drapes his guitar around his shoulders, reaching round with his seemingly extendable arms to play it. Another standing ovation greets the end of the second set, and Vai takes the time to thank each segment of the audience for coming out and turning up. You’re welcome Steve. I’m glad you could make it too.