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Shred along the Wabash
An evening with Steve Vai
By John Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
In any other situation what I'm about to tell you would've been nothing more than just some bizarre dream I was sharing with the world. Just some surrealistic tale that my brain cooked up while I laid in bed and hoped for a few more moments of shut eye. I mean, who in their right mind would believe that Steve Vai, the 80s guitar wizard himself, would be dropping by the Honeywell Center in Wabash, Indiana on a weeknight to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his most critically acclaimed album Passion and Warfare, not to mention one of the best solo guitar records released period? This is Wabash, Indiana, people. Hometown of Crystal Gale and not much else. Scenic and hilly, and maybe a good spot to go antiquing. But not a place Steve Vai stops and plays a show.
Well guess what, he did. And the wife and I were there to tell the tale.
First off I probably would've never heard about this show if it weren't for my mom. She saw the ad for the concert in the local paper and cut it out for my dad to bring over to me. Steve Vai was a pretty big deal to me growing up. Being a budding guitar student I was privy to a handful of shredders that acted as my six-string mentors. I knew that no matter how much I practiced I'd never get to their level of virtuosity, and I was okay with that. I was happy just admiring what they did and generally just being in awe of their guitar badassery. Steve Vai was one of those guys. I'd first heard/seen Vai in the Walter Hill film Crossroads. It was a family favorite. Willie Brown, Lightning Boy, Jami Gertz in cutoff jean shorts, all on the road to Yazoo City, MS to find the crossroads where Willie made a deal with the devil as a young man, just like his friend Robert Johnson did. He feels he didn't get what the devil promised as he ends up poor and alone living in an old folks home in New York where he meets the naive music student named Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio). Brown tells Martone that if he helps him escape that he'd teach the music student Robert Johnson's long lost song that he never recorded. Escape happens, road movie ensues, lessons learned, love found and lost, and then next thing we know we're in Hell where Eugene "Lightning Boy" Martone is cuttin' heads with the devil's guitarist Jack Butler, played by Steve Vai.
If you've seen this movie, you know there's a back and forth guitar duel between Vai and Macchio, which in real life was performed by Vai, while Macchio's slide parts were recorded by Ry Cooder. The end where Lightning Boy gets the upper hand was performed by Vai as well. Now as a 13-year-old kid this whole sequence defined what I considered to be the ultimate guitar playing. It was old school and new school. It was classic and trashy and Vai slithered and slinked on that stage like some gratuitous deviant using his guitar to violate everyone in hearing distance. I'd never seen or heard someone play like that before and I wanted more, more, more. This was where it all began for me when it came to Steve Vai.
Later that year Vai popped up on David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile record and that solidified it for me: Vai was God. He, along with Billy Sheehan and Greg Bissonette made up the hottest band in the mid-80s and they took the over-ego'd David Lee Roth and matched his bloated worldview of himself and brought him back down to earth. One listen to tracks like "Shyboy" and "Elephant Gun" and you knew Roth met his musical match. Eddie Van Halen? Who's that?
Vai hung out for two albums then moved onto filling in for Adrian Vandenberg of Whitesnake and made the Slip of the Tongue album for the Robert Plant wannabee David Coversdale. Vai's playing was impressive as usual, but the album was just a bunch of bloated catcalls and over sweetened ballads. No thanks. I had picked up Vai's first solo album Flex-Able from 1984, as well as the Crossroads S/T only to be disappointed by both. Flex-Able was just a really strange record that showed just how quirky Vai could be (though there were some pretty cool musical moments, like "The Attitude Song"), and the Crossroads S/T completely omitted Vai's "cuttin' heads" segment.
But none of that would matter because in 1990 Steve Vai released his magnum opus, Passion and Warfare, on Relativity Records. It was an emotional powerhouse of a record that ran the gamut between sheer rock explosions ("Erotic Nightmares","Greasy Kid Stuff") to emotional and spiritual journeys ("For The Love Of God", "Sisters".) For the 16-year old me, Passion and Warfare was the epitome of musical excellence and something to admire and aspire to. I proudly wore a Steve Vai 'Passion and Warfare' t-shirt around high school and sweat over tabs of his songs in Guitar Player magazine; as well as making my parents listen to the cassette in the family Accord for many months (mom and dad didn't mind.) Vai was one of those common ground points for my parents and I. We could all agree that the guy was amazing and that Crossroads was a hell of a flick.
Fast forward to 25 years later and I'm sitting in Eugenia's Restaurant, located in the Honeywell Center in Wabash, Indiana. My wife is sitting across from me. After dinner we made our way to our seats which were even better than I thought. The theater is beautiful, by the way. Smaller as far as theaters go, but acoustically perfect and the size makes nearly every spot a good seat. By showtime the theater seemed emptier than I imagined it would be, but it is Wabash. Most shows at the Honeywell consist of bands on the county fair circuit, Celtic dance, and holiday symphony shows (though just last month Ben Folds performed there, so there's that.)
The lights go down, smoke machine engaged, and the screen on stage begins playing a scene from Crossroads. It's where Willie Brown and Lightning Boy meet "a man called Legba" who's changed his name to Scratch. As Legba says "Jack Butler gonna like you," Vai hits the stage and starts playing the scene verbatim. As he hits the stage I have a moment of panic as Vai is wearing this hoodie contraption with two red LED lights on the brim of it. It's dark, so you can't see his face as he makes his way to the center of the stage and I have this feeling I'm watching a "Corey Feldman on the Today Show" moment. After some initial weirdness the lights come up and Vai takes off the hoodie. With band in tow they jump into some down-tuned song that feels a little dated but his playing makes up for any oldness.
The “guitar face” — the expressive faces made when guitarists are getting into the performance — is an art form, really, and Steve Vai is the Picasso of guitar face. At first it's a little off putting, but soon enough I realize the guy is just that into playing. I remember reading about Steve Vai's 8-hour guitar workouts in high school, and that he used to practice 10 to 15 hours a day, so he's allowed some embarrassing facial expressions, I suppose.
After about 20 minutes Vai announces that this tour is in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of Passion and Warfare and that they are going to play the album in its entirety. He's backed by a bassist, drummer, and a guy that plays guitar as well as keys. Tight-knit crew for sure, and they keep up with Vai the whole night. Hearing the album again after so many years was pretty great, especially since Steve Vai was playing it live, 25 feet in front of me. I’d forgotten about many of the songs, and as a reminder of the times there was a screen that would play the videos of some of the songs that I recorded off Headbanger's Ball as a 16 year old (those videos have not aged well, btw.) There were also a couple moments where a fellow guitar pal of Vai's would pop up on the screen and they would play together. First was Joe Satriani, then later Dream Theater's John Petrucci. It was cool, but a little cheesy. Pre-recorded segments aren't really something I look forward to in a live show, but hey it's not my call.
After Passion and Warfare, the band played a couple more tunes including a Frank Zappa duet (like the Satch and Petrucci videos) before closing the show out with a pretty epic number that had Vai out in the audience where he gave the older female usher a kiss, putting his guitar onto a younger woman and playing it while she held up, and making his way through our aisle where Steve Vai was a mere inches away. He stopped a few feet away to let someone pull a guitar pick off his guitar's headstock. It was an impressive display. He made it back to the stage and yelled "I literally have one note left in me" before the song ended. Sweat pouring off his 56 year old face he bowed with his band and signed a few autographs before leaving the stage of the Honeywell Center. Exit stage left.
Despite not being sold out, the crowd Thursday night was of the hardcore fan variety. They knew who they were there to see. Lots of aging metalhead pals in dingy leather jackets, lots of father-son duos, and plenty of older dudes bringing their wives to hit the nostalgia time machine. I was in the latter category. Despite the show starting out a little on the iffy side I decided to let those initial misgivings go and my 16-year old self saw one hell of a show. Steve Vai is still one of the best guitarists breathing and is also one hell of a performer. The slinking and overzealous facial expressions were just him getting into the music and getting into the crowd getting into the music. I think Vai underestimated that small crowd in the Midwest on Thursday night.
I know I underestimated him.