ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, APRIL 28, 2005
When you go to a Steve Vai concert these days, you definitely get your money’s worth, musicianwise. Not only is Vai one of the most gifted rock guitarists alive, his bandmates hold some serious credentials as well. Rhythm guitarist Dave Weiner is still in his 20s, but he’s already making a name for himself with his new solo album, Shove the Sun Aside. Keyboardist-guitarist Tony McAlpine is a guitar hero in his own right: in the mid-’80s, he was blowing folks away with his scorching fretwork on Mike Varney-produced albums like Edge of Insanity and Maximum Security.
And then there’s bassist Billy Sheehan, who-although he’s tasted commercial success with acts like Mr. Big and David Lee Roth-also inhabits the fringes of the music world. His recent work includes a live album with the improvisational jazz-funk trio Niacin and a solo prog-rock release, Cosmic Troubadour, on Vai’s guitar-based Favored Nations label. (A proven master of the four-string, Sheehan also acquits himself well on six- and 12-string electric guitar.)
But the question remains: is it possible to have too much talent in a group? Skill overkill? That’s the feeling I got a few times watching the Vai band go through its paces at the Commodore last Saturday. Although it’s hard not to admire the virtuosity on display, the constant weedley-eedley-eedley of the guitar team’s faster-than-Satch noodlings wore thin on the longer compositions.
“Kinda wanky, eh?” commented my buddy Ken, who’d been known to play a few notes himself as bassist in local prog-metal act Empyria. There were no complaints when Vai slowed things down, however, as on “For the Love of God”, from 1990’s Passion and Warfare CD. That beautifully soaring number was also released in 2000 on The 7th Song, which compiled his most melodious guitar ballads. It’s in music like that where Vai’s artistry hits home for me and where the weedley-eedley-eedley seems downright enchanting.
The sold-out Commodore crowd didn’t appear to mind Vai’s excesses one bit. They encouraged him and his bandmates in their efforts to break the 45-million-notes-a-show barrier and even cheered wildly after his weak vocal performance on what he described as “the silliest love song ever written”.
They showed their appreciation of the fret-burning maestro with steady sales of Vai CDs, DVDs, and T-shirts at the merch table, where youthful opener Eric Sardinas-a bluesy slide guitarist who also records for Favored Nations-could be seen signing autographs and receiving enthusiastic praise from fans. I’d purposely avoided his warm-up set, mainly because I hadn’t been thrilled by his latest CD, Black Pearls. Also, that would have put the evening’s note tally over 50 million, which is way beyond my one-night limit.
After a lengthy keyboard solo by McAlpine, we called it quits and caught the SkyTrain to New West, but halfway there I used my cellphone to check in with another concertgoing friend, a Vai devotee who’d worked his way up to the front of the stage. In the background, I could clearly make out that most notorious of hard-rock indulgences: the extended drum solo. Yep, we’d left at the right time.