Giant balls of gold!
By age 18, he was considered a guitar prodigy. He attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, where his transcription of some of Frank Zappa's more arcane six-string compositions caught the eye of the famed performer. Before he knew it, he was part of Zappa's touring band and appeared on several of the artist's albums. As the heavy metal revolution of the 80s grew to a fever pitch, he found himself, at one time or another, in the bands Whitesnake, Alcatrazz, and ex-Van Halen front man David Lee Roth's solo group. He even made an appearance in the 1986 Ralph Macchio movie Crossroads, playing the Devil's lead axe man. Since the 90s, he's been touring with a band of his own and releasing esoteric, eclectic solo albums. He even has his own line of signature guitars. Along the way he's gathered a reputation as an expert musician, confident showman, and borderline megalomaniac. But unlike his mentor and former teacher, Joe Satriani (another guitar virtuoso), he's never really managed to transform his titanic talent into mass acceptance or popularity. Mention his name and you may find a handful of fans among the slack-jawed video drones. But that doesn't keep Steve Vai from playing. On the contrary. He takes every gig, every solo, and every instrument change as a challenge, a chance to once again step up to the edge of the stage and redefine rock guitar. Fusing all manner of genres and styles into electric lick lightning bolts, he is a one of a kind artist. Now anyone with an inkling to see this dynamic performer live can pick up his new DVD, Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London. The only problem is this may not be the way to witness Vai in action.
Steve Vai is indeed an exceptionally talented musician. He is a guitar hero and a supremely gifted master at six-string improvisation. He can make his instrument gently weep, speak and say, and cry like a baby. If it is audible, Steve can recreate it and then improve on it with his precise fingering and whiplash strumming. But does this make Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London a great concert and DVD experience? The results, sadly, are mixed. Like a master magician tossing all of his best tricks out at once, or a wizard casting multiple spells of ever increasing magnitude, Steve just doesn't know when to say "enough." Like watching a classical guitarist on speed or the mutant spawn of every great axe man ever to sling a Les Paul combined into one, he is overkill personified, categorized, and amplified. As a matter of fact, he is so special, so incredibly articulate and skilled with his playing that he sets up a barrier of "better than" between himself and his audience that makes it hard for an audience to really connect. He is the most insular of artists, making his music and responding to his muse in a way that barely registers with the general pop culture public beyond the rag-tag repertoire of aficionados lining up to worship at his power chord altar. Even when he reaches out, through a ballad or a lilting, gentle pastiche of intricate melody lines, he still seems to be taunting the crowd, showing them how personable and playful he can be before unleashing his standard battalion of pyrotechnical rock gods. Vai is always battling for prominence. But he never wins the war.
If you are a fan of Vai and his style and skill, then Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London will be a mesmerizing, fascinating experience. You get to see Vai and his band of equally adept players mold and configure music into notes and variations unknown to mortal man. They take the stage, hold it firm for over two hours and never once let you experience expertise meltdown. Perhaps this is why the set, while energetic and intense, also feels cold and calculated. Without a huge hit single or dozens of chart-topping albums to feed his coffers, Vai obviously makes the road and his touring the financial bread and butter of his career. And like a Las Vegas lounge act that knows what the people want and how to give it to them, Vai never relents. He'll make several costume changes and brandish high-tech finger lasers to wow the crowd. He will showcase his sizzle with all manner of moves, from intricate digital fireworks to tongue tricks and awkward axe handling. He'll even throw in a few jokes or philosophical bon mots just to liven up the proceedings. Take away the long hair, the chiseled good looks, the ragged robes of many colors, and the musical virtuosity, and you could be staring at Wayne Newton, rounding out the second of two shows a night with a rousing rendition of an obscure Jimmy Hendrix tune. Vai may be electrifying, but that doesn't always translate into engaging.
But at some point, this all begins to break down the entertainment value of the concert. In a performance of individual enthusiasm and unmatched technical marvel, the vibe of disconnect feels forcible. It could be the presentation. DVD may not be the best avenue to experience Vai as a live performer. Without the benefit of being in the crowd, allowing the waves of feedback and reverb to wash over and modify your very DNA, the barriers toward getting into the performance are doubled. Not only do you have Vai's own inner wild child to deal with, but then there is the glass teat itself, removing you further from the fun. Also, Vai's concerts are a lot like attending a two-hour solo showcase. When the band performs together, they constantly break the flow of the songs for crowd-pleasing moments of miniature grandstanding. Everyone gets a platform upon which to perform their own sonic subterfuge. This doesn't make Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London a horrible experience. But it's very difficult to get into without a real working knowledge of his work. The concert is filmed in a multi-angle frenzy that constantly undercuts moments for the sake of another edit, and there is even the employment of some dated digital and camera tricks (backwards looping, odd colorizing) that further threaten the experience.
Favored Nations presents Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London in a clean, bright 1.33:1 full screen image that is good, but far from perfect. Most of the footage is direct to digital and has the telltale signs of videography. We get occasional flaring, some grain, and obvious glare refraction. It's abundantly clear that Vai did some of his own homemade editing here (he confirms it in the commentary). There is laptop trickery (bad wipes and awkward cuts) throughout the concert. Sonically, the DVD is exceptional. Vai himself oversaw the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Stereo mixes and they are stunning. There is subtlety, power, precision, and electrified rawness radiating from the home theater speakers during this concert. As part of the set, we also get some extras. The sole bonus on Disc One is a commentary track that is light and effervescent. Featuring the entire band minus one, Steve answers the phone during the talk and discusses (with lots of tech geek jargon) how he fiddled with the film on his computer. He is also a wealth of information about the guitars he is playing and the memories attached to certain songs and even shares a case of unintentional plagiarism with us. The rest of the band offer their occasional insights, but just like the concert, the alternative track is almost all Vai.
Disc Two is where the remainder of the extras resides and it is an amalgamation of skits, rehearsals, and interviews. Most of the backstage stuff tries to mimic Spinal Tap (even down to giving the unseen interviewer/cameraman a Marty DiBergi kind of name), and it is occasionally funny. But the odd aspect of it all is that it seems to constantly belittle Vai and his "enigmatic" personality. While it is all a joke (hopefully), one wonders at how many of the jabs are Freudian slips unleashed (especially the comment about how "girls" are not welcome back stage "because of…you know…Steve." Huh?). Yet even with all the material here, the uninitiated may feel like they're lost in the crowd of the Astoria faithful. Shots show limited fist pumping and head banging (not that Vai's musical menagerie lends itself to such salutes) and more nodding brows, the sign of über guitar geeks getting their lead line fix from the minister of musical mayhem. Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London will probably not convert you into a fan of the man. But you can't help but admire his amazing talent.
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Scales of Justice
• Full Length Audio Commentary by Steve Vai and the Band
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