Vai is zen.
Vai was amazing. Beautifully intense with a cool charm; he had the rock-star look and strut but this was no shred-guitar goon.
Let me just break off here and say I had expected to find a live set by Steve Vai in 2012 to be quite ridiculous, possibly painful.
I was a fan. But that was 20 years earlier. And only really because of Passion And Warfare (and of course for his role in the movie Crossroads too). I liked his contributions before he became Steve Vai the solo artist: his work with PiL and Whitesnake and David Lee Roth. Especially the stuff with PiL but in some cases (as with PiL especially) I discovered that after. Passion and Warfare, and Crossroads before it, found me at the right time. Or I found them at the right time. Or both.
Put another way, the 15-year-old me was very interested in seeing Steve Vai live. (And Joe Satriani). The 35-year-old me was a little more realistic about how it might play out in the context of now.
But nothing prepared me for just how good Vai is live. I know he can play. Even as I’ve moved away from most of the music he’s made over the last two decades (I’ll always stop in now and then to appreciate some of what he is doing; the live DVD with the orchestra is partly absurd but mostly amazing).
Right from the set-opener (The Audience Is Listening) Vai stormed the stage. His approach was not like any other guitarist I’ve seen.
It was a command performance from a first violinist; it was like watching a magician – but in place of any smoke and mirrors there was simply true belief. It was spellbinding but there was never any hint of wool being pulled over eyes. This was just the outcome from years of hard work, dedication, devotion.
The 10-hour practice regime might have seemed excessive/exhaustive to read about – but it was very clear to see the proof of that workout.
Fretboard wankery is something I have grown to detest as the years pile up. I would (often) rather hear a Jules Shear on the guitar (if they have something to say) over a Satriani or Vai – but this was no (mere) guitar onanism. This was the collision point of the emotion and commotion that Jeff Beck is still seeking out. This was passion and technique shaking hands, agreeing to combine vestiges in order to offer the very best. This was a masterclass, absolutely. But it was moving. It was momentous.
It was, quite simply, one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen – music or otherwise. It was a deeply religious experience for me. Not just the pilgrimage point of turning up, hoping the act delivers. This was actually church. The tour-de-force that is For The Love Of God saw to that.
Now this might still all sound utterly absurd for those still reading. And I’m not sure (at all) that you are wrong. But several years on I’m still thinking about the Steve Vai portion of the G3 show that I saw. The emotional peak of the evening. It wasn’t just flawless (in fact it wasn’t even flawless, there was one fluffed note during For The Love Of God, it gave the performance heart; more soul). This was about more than music – it was about capability. About what we can achieve if we have determination, if we value the input of our time and energy. If we correctly learn how to harness potential and then go far beyond the limits of that.
Steve Vai playing the guitar live: it went beyond just a guy with a guitar, it was more than just some amazing musicians working well together to do their job. Well it could have been Muhammad Ali (in his prime) in the ring. It was David Copperfield. It was Norman Mailer.
I’m aware of how ridiculous this all sounds. But it is the truth of what I saw.
If I’m at pains to put that across here it’s because I was part of a revelation. Vai is Zen. Guitar master.