Steve Vai takes Devin Townsend on in a fierce guitar duel but doesn’t let the home team win



By Steve Newton

Vancouver vocalist Devin Townsend caused a minor uproar (and prompted a few letters to the editor) when he was interviewed in the Straight a few weeks back. Some folks didn’t appreciate the 21-year-old’s caustic view of the music industry or his offhand remarks regarding the guitar in general and guitarist Steve Vai in particular.

But any readers who judged Townsend as an ungrateful, snot-nosed punk who just happened to luck out and score a dream gig in Vai’s band would have been hard-pressed to slag him after Wednesday’s (September 29) Commodore show. The guy’s a wicked vocalist and a wild front man, and for someone who professes to despise the guitar, he sure handles the damn thing well.

The Vai band focused on tunes from its recently released CD, Sex & Religion, which runs the gamut from melodic power ballads (“In My Dreams with You”) to flat-out manic thrash (“Pig”), and Townsend was a prowling, panther-like presence throughout. Performance-wise, he’s like a twisted cross between Johnny Rotten, Peter Garrett, and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore—only he can out-shriek them all. The veins on his partly shaved head were bulging in places where I didn’t know veins could be, and if the band could have harnessed his energy, it could have done without power amps.

The loudest concert I’ve ever been to was David Lee Roth at the Pacific Coliseum, back when Vai was his guitarist, but this time—despite the fact that Townsend himself was wearing protective earplugs—Vai was much less deafening. And after seeing him play a rather silly crotch-rock gig with Whitesnake a few years ago, it was a whole ’nother ball game to experience the primo player at a bar.

I used to think Vai was somewhat of a noodling, 1,000-notes-per-second techno-wanker in concert, but his subtle mastery of sounds and emotions was highly evident at the Commodore. He was, no doubt, driven in his inspired performance by drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., whose spotless playing more than made up for the fact that he was filling Sex & Religion drummer Terry Bozzio’s sizeable shoes.

“You know one of the reasons I like Vancouver so much?” asked Vai when the band was called back for an encore. “It’s because that’s where Devin’s from.” With that, Vai took the youngster on in a showstopping guitar duel, and although Townsend proved himself worthy of the challenge, Vai wasn’t quite nice enough to let his colleague outplay him, hometown crowd or not.

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