Currently touring the album Inviolate and joined on stage by Philip Bynoe (bass), Dante Frisiello (guitar), and Jeremy Colson (drums), Steve Vai delivered a set of primarily instrumental material for two and a half hours to a mesmerized audience this past Tuesday night at Danforth Music Hall. Vai’s solo material tends to be instrumental. Still, he brought out his monitor engineer Dani G to sing one song after some comedic dialogue about “weird things you find out about your crew on tour.” On this run of live dates, he found out Dani could sing operatic vocals, so “For the Love of God” was performed with Dani bellowing out operatic vocals over the song.
While the instrumental electric guitar music genre might fall short on most people’s radars, Steve Vai’s resume as a musician is nothing short of legendary. Vai started his music career in 1978 at only 18 years old as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa. He then played in Zappa’s band from 1980 to 1983, where Zappa would refer to him as “The Stunt Guitarist.” Vai then pursued a solo career in 1983 and has since released a dozen instrumental solo albums; his 1990 Passion and Warfare is often described as one of the richest and best hard rock guitar-virtuoso albums ever. Vai has recorded and toured with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake, as well as recording with artists such as Public Image Ltd, Mary J. Blige, Spinal Tap, Alice Cooper, Motörhead, and Polyphia. He is easily one of the greatest guitarists on the planet. Vai can bend a guitar string like nobody else, and everyone in the audience this evening was excited by the prospect of seeing something magical this evening.
Vai’s secret sauce has always been his ability to surround himself with talent and let them shine, this evening’s band members being no exception. Bynoe, Frisiello, and Colson all got moments to show off their respective skills with individual solos for each member and numerous opportunities to shine with Vai as he showcased his guitaring magic throughout the evening’s eighteen songs. Many of the cuts this night featured background videos, a slow-panning camera over a desert or forest, sped-up water flowing through a river bed: digital outerspace panoramas. One of the most entertaining featured a clever CGI montage of a baby being nurtured within a womb and eventually getting born as an old black and white headshot of Vai at around age nine is superimposed over the baby’s face all orchestrated over two minutes to one of Vai’s more tender guitar pieces entitled “I’m Becoming.”
Some key visual moments from this evening:
- During “Incantation,” all of the guitar techs on the “Inviolate Tour” walked out on stage and stood astride with the band and shredded along with Vai, Bynoe, and Frisiello while periodically facing the audience and then turning 180 degrees to the back of the stage, never missing a beat.
- Before playing “Bad Horsie,” Vai projected the beginning of his clip from the Crossroads movie, where his memorable appearance as Jack Butler duelling against Ralph Macchio was replicated live on stage in synch with the footage before he broke it off into “Bad Horsie.” While Crossroads remains an obscure ’80s film, the Steve Vai showmanship in the film has appealed to a generation of guitar buffs for decades, and it truly warmed my heart to see a snippet of it performed live.
- The showpiece of the evening and the unsung hero of the Inviolate album is “Teeth of the Hydra,” a composition Vai wrote and recorded with a one-of-a-kind custom triple-necked guitar he aptly coined the Hydra. It’s a track that couldn’t exist without this incredible customized instrument. He spent over a month of full days composing the track on the Hydra, unlearning the things he knew about playing a traditional guitar and slowly mastering the new instrument. As the incredible guitar was wheeled out, mounted on a stand onstage, Vai worked his way through the track, to everyone’s astonishment. During the last minute of “Teeth of the Hydra,” as Vai worked his hands up and down the three necks of the guitar like some guitaring mutant, the giddying awe emanating from the audience became palpable. I’d never seen anything like that onstage before in my life, and it was worth the cost of everyone’s admission alone.
Towards the end of the show, after disclosing to the audience that his wife suggested he talk more during his performances, Steve talked a bit about the release of this year’s VAI/GASH, an album of motorcycle-themed material he recorded with John Sombrotto (Gash to his friends due to numerous burn scars on his body) thirty years ago. He described the album as simple, melodic, and empowering material, featuring “very short guitar solos, which is very unlike me.” Sombretto died in a motorcycle crash shortly after recording his vocals, and the album then sat for 30 years. He said they wouldn’t play anything from VAI/GASH, self-deprecatingly describing his vocals as “You don’t wanna hear that!!” That would be a disaster!!” And then delivering “Although I’ve got a pretty good voice, I must say!” in a sort of a David Lee Roth warble. Vai needs to listen to his wife more; while the feature of his shows should always be on his guitaring, Vai is an amusing individual. His storytelling throughout this performance was warm and insightful and helped balance out the lack of vocals in this material.
As he introduced “Greenish Blues” as a sort of blues number, he admitted to being a touring musician the world over for 43 years. He said being able to put out a record like Inviolate after all that time and have it be so well received by fans and press was an incredible accomplishment. He called out the Toronto evening a few times as one of the tour’s better shows. He could have been pandering, but there was a lot of energy coming from the crowd throughout the performance. I sure left this show with a smile on my face.
Steve Vai Setlist Toronto:
Giant Balls of Gold
Tender Surrender (with band introduction)
Lights Are On
Incantation (with guitar techs)
Bass Solo (Philip Bynoe)
Guitar Solo (Dante Frisiello)
Building the Church
Whispering a Prayer
Drum Solo (Jeremy Colson)
Teeth of the Hydra
Zeus in Chains
For the Love of God (Danny G on vocals)
Fire Garden Suite IV – Taurus Bulba