When we queried
virtuosic guitarist and composer Steve Vai about what to expect from his
impending South Florida performance -- the kickoff show of his tour -- he said that we were "in for some surprises." Last night, Vai performed to a beyond-packed house at Revolution Live and showed the massive crowd that (mostly) instrumental guitar music can be extremely enthralling and exciting live.
The Voice finalist Beverly McClellan was Vai's opening act. McClellan is also the source of the immense-sounding lead vocal on the first single from Vai's newest release, The Story of Light. The singer performed a set of her own songs, accompanying her wonderfully soulful vocals only with the strumming of an acoustic guitar or a few chords on a keyboard. Unfortunately, McClellan's set fell prey to the noise of a capacity crowd settling in and fueling up on adult beverages. The applause between songs, though, made it clear that those paying attention truly appreciated her efforts.
While the Vai band's small team of technicians prepped the group's gear, it became apparent that it had been a long time since we'd borne witness to a crowd as large as the one last night at Revolution. Any preconceived notions we had about the archetypical "guitar music" fan-base were completely shattered. So dense was the crowd, that fights broke out during sound check.
Finally, a thunderous crack of noise ended the playback of Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, though Vai was still nowhere to be seen. The lights went out, the stage was engulfed in a cloud of fog, and rising from it, propelled by a wave of cacophonous sound, was Steve Vai. Wrapped in a long black coat, wearing ornate, printed pants, and a black "Zorro" hat, Vai coerced feedback and noise from his trusty white Ibanez guitar (EVO, for the nerds) to the room's utter delight.
After a fake-out start, Vai welcomed the audience to the "first live show in over 5 years," and the band re-ignited, blasting through the progressive riff of the track "Velorum" from the new album.
The band included long-time Vai guitar foil Dave Weiner, drummer Jeremy Colson, bassist Philip Bynoe, and the newest edition to the Vai band, harp player Deborah Henson-Conant. Conant's instrument was a metal harp worn with a strap that featured colored strings that were illuminated by LEDs. Hansen-Conant and her instrument looked like what people in the early '90s probably thought rockstars might look like in 2024.
After the frenzied fretboard fury of "Velorum," Vai was handed a mirror-finish guitar with blue LEDs implanted in the fretboard upon which he released a two-hand-tapping blast of jaw dropping notes. The Zorro hat was now gone, and Vai strutted around the stage, commanding the audience as well as any frontman we have seen in recent memory. The showmanship that Vai mates with his incredible displays of technical skill go an extremely long way in keeping things interesting. He is so one with the instrument that he can concentrate on working the room, rather than staring at his guitar the entire time. The way he manipulated his guitars can be described as telekinetic.
Most of the set was made up of tracks from the new release, and "Gravity Storm" was extremely well-recieved by the crowd. The song was one of the most straight ahead rock moments of the night, and Vai coaxed a completely mind-bending solo out of an Ibanez guitar painted like Jimi Hendrix's famous Monterey Pop Stratocaster.
Vai changed costumes throughout the night, donning shiny shirts and pants galore, and always finding the time to give his bandmates the spotlight, with each and every one of them receiving feature moments throughout the evening. At one point, toward the end of the set, Vai gave the floor to a band member for a feature, and returned wearing an LED encrusted robe, headpiece with lasers, laser shooting gloves, and the ornately sculpted guitar that looked like the one painted on The Ultra Zone record cover.
Fan favorite "Tender Surrender" brought the heat down into jazz mode for a while but had Vai ripping what might have been his most impressive guitar solo of the night, complete with full-bore whammy-bar abuse, screaming notes from the upper register, and a guitar that spoke emotions better than even the best human voices can.
A highlight of the night was when McClellan joined Vai on stage to add her sultry voice to "John the Revelator." The song's swaying, chunky riff and the interplay between Vai's guitar and McClellan's voice was absolute in its rockness.
Other notable moments of the night included a short acoustic set and drummer Jeremy Colson doing a puppet show using a talking skull mounted on what can be described as a harness that he wore. It was littered with mounted electronic drum pads, percussion toys, and other tools for Colson to use during his interesting spotlight moment. Comic relief at the end of the set included strap-on jokes, the aforementioned talking skull, and Vai building a song through audience participation to show how inspiration works.
No doubt, Steve Vai is a bit of a ham, but it's all done in a way that is fun, entertaining, and, for musicians in the audience, enlightening. The joy he takes in being onstage is obvious, and as far as performing in its most fundamental of forms is concerned, Vai is a master. Even in shaking out the set for the first night of a long tour, he performed exceptionally.
Personal bias: Super guitar nerd, though a casual Steve Vai fan. Until last night.
Random detail: Vai's laser suit looked kind of like one of the aliens from Babylon 5.
Random detail 2: Who remembers Babylon 5? I loved that show.