It’s my first time in Ipswich and it’s a cold, wet and miserable night. I arrive at the splendid Regent Theatre to see Steve Vai, one of the most famous and gifted guitarists on the planet at exactly five minutes past eight. The show is already in full swing, making it the first gig I’ve EVER been to that has actually started on time.
Strangely for a ‘rock show’ that is only two songs old the audience are all firmly seated. When the next one finishes Steve announces he is going to play for 3 hours tonight. Now I realise why everyone has got so comfortable.
Actually I don’t mind at all, I’m 15ft from the stage and right in the middle. There are no sweaty armpits in my face or heads to block my view. I am also far too old to do things like jump up and down or stage dive, so I settle back and let the music wash over me like inter-planetary mind conditioner.
Steve Vai is a very technically minded guitar player and I was slightly apprehensive this show might be a bit ‘muso’ for my liking. It was probably true (as Steve joked) that two-thirds of the audience were guitarists, and the other third were their guitar teachers, however beneath the surface of frantic chord progressions and pentonic 8th’s there is also a heart and soul to Vai’s music that is much more than just flashy fingers, blood and thunder.
The man who began his career playing with Frank Zappa, John Lydon and made his name with ex-Van Halen frontman Dave Lee Roth is still clearly very much in love with the guitar.
I interviewed him recently and he waxed lyrically about the way his playing had matured through the years, live his backing band are so in tune he can turn a song on a sixpence, or as he did tonight (with the help of two slightly strange members of the audience) compose something completely on the spot.
They are no ordinary group of session musicians either, and not to be outdone by Steve’s iconic seven string Ibanez, bass player Philip Bynoe goes one better and has got six (instead of the usual four strings) on his bass.
On rhythm guitar is Dave Weiner, also a talented solo artist in his own right, while Drummer Jeremy Colson is the most rock n’ roll guy in the band. He has more tattoo’s and lights up a cigarette in the middle of a song. Outrageous! Doesn’t he know that sort of thing could wind him up in jail? Or at least a firm ticking off from the fire safety officer.
Also part of Steve’s live band is harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, a slightly odd sight at first, but her rich tapestries weave intricately into the overall sound perfectly. She does look a bit scary though.
Some musicians are said to be able to make their instruments speak, and Steve has in the past literally done this. In between songs he is self deprecating, happy just to be up there sharing his talents with the audience. Ipswich hangs on to every bended note, every carefully instigated feedback blow and finger picking arpeggio. Sometimes his playing is abrasive like two sides of a heated conversation, at other times like the peaceful calm after a heavy storm.
He dips from album to album playing many of my favourites from 1990’s “Passion and Warfare”. I’m still fairly new to the latest ‘Story of Light’ record, but live the tracks glisten and sparkle.
The obligatory instrumental solos are done to allow time for Steve’s costume changes, the most alarming is a future, robot, ninja type outfit with Christmas tree lighting and scary welders mask type thing. Appearing from behind a blanket of the dry ice it looks totally ridiculous and by the same measure incredibly cool. It’s a bit Spinal Tap, but he is in on the joke too.
The three hour show flies by, finishing with ‘For the Love of God’, one of Vai’s most definitive tracks, and the perfect showcase of his talents.
The lights go up and the audience leave slowly and happily. Later, through the Suffolk torrential rain, if you listen carefully enough you can still hear Vai’s final chord still feeding back to infinity. It’s an ‘e’ minor seventh if I’m not mistaken.