November 19, 2013
By Jeb Wright
Cain’s Ballroom is located in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. When one enters the venue the first things one notices is the hardwood floor, then the stage at the far end of the room and then…when one’s eyes wander around the room they notice the portraits of country music legends like Bob Wills and Roy Acuff and dozens of others.
This certainly is an iconic music hall yet it is not exactly the setting one would expect to see Mr. Steve Vai play in. Watching him perform his guitar exorcisms all night long under a giant picture of Bill Wills of Bob Wills and Texas Playboys is, well, pretty fucking odd to tell the truth. However, once past the Green Acres vibe, and once properly mesmerized by the maestro, the venue’s styling melts away, leaving only the endless stream of distorted guitar notes flying through the air…soon one is hypnotized by greatness and in awe of something that can only be experienced when in the presence of the true rock dog of rock guitar. Yep, I’m talking about a Steve Vai.
Vai is unlike any other guitarist in the world when it comes to technical prowess. It simply does not get any better than this. No one has ever in the past, and certainly not in the present, and probably not in the foreseeable future commanded so much music from his instrument.
Musically weaned on guitar under the tutelage of Frank Zappa and then sought after by the biggest hard rock acts in the world including David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, Mr. Vai is a pure mixed bag of excellence when it comes to guitar playing. There is heavy metal, jazz, jazz from hell, rock, a tad of classical at times, blues…although he does not seem to stay in that genre much, he could if he wanted too…and…well, the one that is left out is kind of funny as there is no country music to please the ghosts of wild west’s past that fill the hallowed halls of Cain’s Ballroom. In fact, Bob Wills would probably shit if he heard what Vai was doing on that stage…and not just musically.
Vai not only plays with a technical ability that is unmatched, he also is a showman and at times attempts to be a comedian. Suffice it to say that his jokes come in third place in a field of three when it comes to humor, musicianship and showmanship. But that’s okay. Whether talking about the strap on drum kit that appears on the drummer during the show or wiggling his right hand’s fingers saying he knows what people are there to see…his smaltz is just that. Okay, it’s naughty enough to get a chuckle out of me but not funny enough to distract one from the evenings musical brilliance.
Let’s talk brilliance. Vai does what he wants, how he wants, when he wants and with whom he wants. Live, he is the master and commander and is in total control. Much of the show is scripted, ironically, even the places where freeform jamming is allowed are set in place before the show begins. He can, and does, stray from the plan from time to time and that makes each show a little bit special. By and large, however, in between the breaks where his band mates get a few moments in the limelight, the early Vegas jokes and the occasional chatting with the crowd to tell a tale, Mr. V is pretty much all about showing off how damn good he is on the guitar. Not just with flash, however, as he writes melodies that rip into the emotional pallet damn near driving one to tears. He wrestles squeaks and squeals from his guitar that are in another musical language and he performs a run so damn fast and heavy even Black Sabbath get a little bit jealous.
There is enough Zappa in Vai to make him an artist…and a bad comedian. There is enough uniqueness in Vai to make him original and there is enough talent to put him in his own league. He is much more than a flash in the pan show off guitar player. Oh, he can do that, but it does not satisfy his soul. He needs more. He craves the attention as well as the challenge.
Dare I say it, I heard a few missed notes in this performance. DAMN HIM! Well, they were mostly by his band…just kidding..Steve flubbed a note or two proving that he is fucking human after all! Most of the time, however, he played with perfection…technical, emotional and spiritual perfection. He even brought three fans out of the audience on stage, had them hum musical parts into the microphone and then he and the band composed a song out of the humming on the spot.
Here is a little secret about Steve Vai…he knows he’s good. He even knows he’s THAT good. He also understands that he has to honor his craft and respect his abilities and he even sacrifices by staying true to his craft as he has sold out and done the occasional Whitesnake album for a butt load of dough…but he would rather be doing what he did on this night at Cain’s Ballroom. For when he plays as Steve Vai he is a complete musician in control of his own destiny. And that, my friends, is what makes Steve Vai so special. He has the knowledge, the passion, the fire, the physical dexterity, the mental toughness and the emotional desire to excel.
The next tour will be more challenging than this one and feature new jokes, new stories, probably a virtuoso tuba player, or an entire section of them, and other outside the box…err make that outside the stratosphere thinking. And he will pull it off because he is Steve Vai. And I will be there to write about it.
The only people I feel sorry for at a Steve Vai concert are women who go there on a date with their guitar player boyfriends. Not only will they be completely ignored, they will be bored out of their minds. They may end up with a crush on Vai as women seem to do that even if they can’t name one band he has been in or even get what in the hell he is trying to say on his instrument.
Steve is one lucky guy. And a Steve Vai concert is a total musical experience that will test the boundaries of imagination, leaving one in awe of the man, and the event at the end of the evening. This evening at Cain’s was no exception. In fact, after the show, I am pretty sure I saw a smile on Bob Wills photo that was not there when the show began.
Frank would be proud. He would think Steve relies too much on heavy metal riffs but he would be proud. And he would want those pants…now those were some amazing pants. Steve…were did you get those pants?