Steve Vai @ Vicar Street, Dublin – Tuesday December 4th 2012

There are many great guitar players in the world, a few of whom can be described as truly innovative – Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour and Joe Satriani are among the names that comes instantly to mind in this regard. There are also a handful who can have the ability to captivate and enervate an audience for three hours and make that time feel like just a few short minutes.

Steve Vai most definitely falls into both categories, as this return to Dublin after a gap of five years, ably demonstrated.

Taking to the stage amid blinding white light and dry ice – the latter adding to the effect of the smoking hot licks produced by this fiery guitarist – Vai and his supremely talented backing band tear through the opening coupling of ‘Racing The World’ and ‘Velorum’ before taking a break to talk to his audience. Actually, “talk” is perhaps something of a misnomer, as his between song patter is more of a conversation between himself, the band and his fans: Vai obviously really that part of his ‘job’ is to entertain, not just ‘show off’ his not inconsiderable playing skills – and his discourses are therefore appropriately entertaining and fun (he later evens pokes a joke at his own skills – “it’s these pants… every time I put them on, my legs think I’m Prince!)”

He’s also more than happy to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians, as evidenced early on when second guitarist Dave Weiner (who also has the unenviable task of sharing solos with the maestro) is given the space and time to showcase his own not inconsiderable skills with a highly impressive acoustic workout – itself a precursor of what is to come in the third quarter of the show. Vai’s respect for his band-mates is also shown when he points out that Weiner himself has a new solo album available.

The set is well-paced, alternating between the thunderous riffing of ‘Weeping China Doll’ and the lilting lullaby of ‘The Moon And I’ – the latter featuring a rare vocal performance from the guitarist. For this tour, Vai also has recruited the renowned harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, an artist regarded as the best in her field, and her flamboyant playing style – which again sees her ranging from out and out shredding to genteel Celtic harmonies and even flamenco touches – matches that of the guitarist perfectly, and he certainly, unselfishly, gives her more than enough moments to shine.

Obviously, however, the night is all about Vai himself, and he constantly shows why he is possibly the most imaginative and innovative guitarist of his generation, making his instrument sing and soar without even fretting a note, sounding out the traditional audience call and response with just basic harmonic changes.

A second extended harp workout by Henson-Conant prequels the band’s acoustic session, with Vai again taking to the mic for ‘Rescue Me Or Bury Me’, before varying his normal set list to introduce ‘Mullach a’ tSi’, the traditional Celtic tune featured on his most recent album, ‘The Story Of Light’, which he says has haunted him for the past 15 years, for which he is joined by the Gaelic vocalist Padraigin Ni Uallachain. It’s a beautiful moment which holds even the most hardened rocker in the theatre in its thrall.

There’s more humour to come, as well, as in the comedic exchange between Vai and drummer Jeremy Colson, who interrupts the end of the acoustic session by coming on stage draped in multi-coloured lights, with a strap on electronic kit (complete with ‘Boner’), which leads into the obligatory but hugely impressive drum solo.

Vai then returns to the stage in a ridiculous spaceman suit for a frenetic ‘The Ultra Zone’, before proving that even professionals make mistakes by having to re-start ‘Frank’ because “I love playing this solo so much I refuse to try and battle through it with a completely out-of-tune guitar”. His Zappa roots are re-accentuated by his revival of the ‘Build Me A Song’ routine from his days with the prince of the sublime, with three audience members picked out of the crowd to provide rhythms, harmonies and melodies for him to construct a tune from… the subsequent solo, however, is even more mesmerising as a result. The poignancy of these two particular moments is highlighted by Vai in his very final remarks, when he points out that this gig is taking place on the exact anniversary of the death, 19 years earlier, of his mentor.

As I said at the outset of this review, very few performers have the ability to captivate and entertain in equal measure for three short hours. Vai certainly sets the standard for anyone wishing to attain that status: a master of his craft still very much at the top of his game – and, hopefully, with plenty more to come.  Definitely not just a contender for gig of the year, but the very clear winner…

Set list:

Racing The World / Velorum / Building The Church / Tender Surrender / Gravity Storm / Dave Weiner Acoustic Solo / Weeping China Doll / Answers / The Moon And I / The Animal / Whispering A Prayer / The Audience Is Listening / Harp Solo / Rescue Me Or Bury Me / Mullach a’ tSi / Treasure Island / Salamanders In The Sun / Pusa Road / Drum Solo / The Ultra Zone / Frank / Build Me A Song / For The Love Of God
Encore: Taurus Bulba

Photographs by Steve Dempsey / Down The Barrel Photography:

About Mark Ashby

no longer planetmosh staff