Concert ReviewsReviews

Steve Vai at The Variety Playhouse

Steve Vai, live at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia

Date: November 29, 2016
Venue: The Variety Playhouse
Location: Atlanta, GA

Recorded around 1990 in between his stints with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, Passion & Warfare is guitarist Steve Vai’s second release as a solo artist, and his first on a major label. This album set the stage for what would become a 30+ year career as a solo artist, and bring Vai critical acclaim for his incredible guitar technique and Frank Zappa-influenced musical style.

When I first heard the album I thought to myself “what in the hell is this?” Initially I found it weird and out of the ordinary, but I was so intrigued by it that I kept on listening. It was so different than any other guitar-based instrumental music that I had heard up until that time. Now all these years later, I would argue that Passion & Warfare could possibly be the most creative guitar album since Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Being a fan of Vai’s music for so long, I couldn’t wait to finally hear every song from the album performed live as Steve and his band – long time rhythm guitarist and protégé Dave Weiner, drummer Jeremy Colson and bassist Philip Bynoe – made a stop at the newly renovated Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points, GA to celebrate Passion & Warfare’s 25th anniversary.

To help set the stage and take the audience back to the late 80s/early 90s, the show began with a scene from the 1986 movie Crossroads that was projected on a big screen behind the drum riser. Young blues musician Eugene (Ralph Macchio) and his mentor Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) meet up with the Devil at the proverbial crossroads where Robert Johnson famously sold his soul. Vai played “the Devil’s guitar player,” Jack Butler, in the movie’s climactic “head-cutting“ guitar duel scene. As the scene faded, the chugging intro of “Bad Horsie” filled the hall and in came the guitarist shrouded in smoke and wearing sunglasses and a hoodie, with laser beams seemingly shooting out of his eyes. Now this is how you start a show!

The looser, more upbeat “The Crying Machine” from Vai’s 1996 album Fire Garden was next, followed by the string-bending masterclass of “Gravity Storm.” The incredibly sweet ballad “Whispering a Prayer” was beautifully presented, complete with its signature sustained, arcing lines. With the warm up complete, it was time to dig into Passion & Warfare.

I remember reading an interview in a guitar magazine years ago where Steve explained that he learned the importance of not only being a musician, but also an entertainer from David Lee Roth. I guess if you’re going to learn how to be an entertainer, learn from the best, right? Vai’s music can be a challenging listen, so he always interjects something unique into his stage shows. Several years ago during the Ultra Zone tour, it was a hilarious dance number performed by his band. This time around it was the use of video; some prerecorded and some classic video from his past. Steve introduced a video clip of Queen guitarist Brian May introducing him at a 1992 concert in Sevilla, Spain (check YouTube), to perform – for the very first time – the music from Passion & Warfare. Vai and band synced up with the video, and it seemed as if Brian May was playing right along with the band during the opening track “Liberty.”

“Erotic Nightmares” showcased all of Vai’s signature “guitar-isms”: the fluid, precisely picked notes; pinch harmonics; the strummed, sliding rhythms and the seriously abusive tremolo technique. I mean, he really pushes and pulls on that thing, coaxing out all types of squeals and growls. In between all of this chaos comes the crazy breakdown section in the middle that includes Vai holding the guitar up to this face to yell into the pickups. It’s completely insane.

Steve Vai, live at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia

The band methodically made their way through the album, ripping through some of the deeper cuts like “The Animal” and ”Answers.” The band was joined once again via video by another guest during “Answers,” as guitarist and mentor Joe Satriani interrupted the band to jam along and trade licks with Steve.

I’ve always thought was one of the most intriguing songs on the album was the short, odd time signature tune “Ballerina 12/24.” Vai pulled off all of the odd chord structures and intricate finger picking with ease, pausing long enough to look at the crowd and say “I have no idea what I’m doing” before continuing right along.

Probably the most popular song off of the album (and a signature song in his live set), the spiritual ballad “For The Love of God” was yet again a highlight of the evening. Each note was delivered with feeling and sincerity as Vai – always the showman – ended the piece by coaxing out some harmonics by using his tongue against the strings.

Dream Theater’s John Petrucci joined Steve and band by video to jam along to the breakneck “The Audience is Listening.” Melodic rocker “I Would Love To,” the ballad “Blue Powder” and “Greasy Kid’s Stuff” filled the second half of the set, and acoustic guitar master Tommy Emmanuel joined Steve for a video duet during the acoustic “Sisters.”

“Love Secrets” closed out the Passion & Warfare section of the show and the band took a bow, before returning for an encore of the Frank Zappa number “Stevie’s Spanking.” A video introduction by Zappa started the song, then Steve Vai and band played along with, well..Steve Vai and band (from the video, that is). The uptempo rocker “Racing the World” closed out the first encore, before the band came back on stage to finish out the night with a section of the “Fire Garden Suite” from Vai’s 1996 album Fire Garden. 

Steve Vai, live at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia

It was during this final encore song that Vai jumped down from the stage and into the crowd, walked up the aisle and found himself in front of a young boy. He then wrapped his guitar around the boy from behind and continued to play, as the boy’s face lit up with excitement.

So, all told, I experienced two hours and twenty minutes of inspired, amazing, thoughtful, funny, entertaining music from a man who’s musical depth and talent knows no boundries. Passion & Warfare sounds every bit as fresh and interesting and alive as it did in 1990.

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