I was fortunate enough to cover a huge number of guitar heavy hitters in one fall swoop this week: Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi; all currently on the Generation Axe Tour. Five very different guitarists that cover Heavy Rock and Blues, to Neo-Classical Metal and Experiment Progressive. One thing is for damned sure: each man is at the top of their game and love playing the highest quantity of notes in the shortest period of time possible. As Bettencourt put it so succinctly: The promoters could not figure out how to pay all of these slingers and decided to pay each per note. No doubt, these gentlemen would come out on the winning end of that deal!
I think it is safe to say that everyone came to the show to see one or two of their favorite artists. That certainly holds true for me. I have seen Steve Vai quite a few times over the years and loved every show, Zakk Wylde with Black Label Society a couple of times which, of course, is always ear-splitting and fun, Nuno Bettencourt years and years ago with Extreme, Yngwie Malmsteen once in the mid-80’s (he was one of my primary motivators), but I have never seen Tosin Abasi or Animals As Leaders live, so I was especially excited to see this 8 string wonder shred the wood off of his fretboard. When it was all said and done, favorites mean nothing because the bar for this show was off the scale. It would become nit-picking or simply a matter of a subjective style and taste. Personally, I sat in the third row, center stage (Thank you so much, Scott!) and was moved, highly entertained and awed for three and a half hours. I love it all…
Taking place at the Florida Theater where I recently saw and reviewed Joe Satriani‘s show (please see: Surfing to Shockwave Tour), there were no curtains, banners or fancy stage show props. No need for any level of gimmick for this concert. Nobody would have noticed them anyway. Just a wall of Marshall heads (I counted no less than 25) and stacks, a huge drum kit and mic stands. The crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk with no particular age group or musical tastes obvious. There were t-shirts ranging from Styx to Behemoth, from Alice Cooper to Three Dog Night and everything else in between (I was sporting my Uli Jon Roth, Jennifer Battan, Andy Timmons “Ultimate Guitar Experience” tour shirt from last week’s review). Of course, shirts for each player and their bands were also sprinkled throughout the mix as well. A camaraderie of music fans in celebration of the best of the best. Nothing more, nothing less.
These five guitarists stormed the stage trading riffs and having a blast with Boston’s “Foreplay”. Smiling and obviously enjoying one another’s talent and company; the audience was greeted to a wall of wonderful, screaming guitar sound, played at a ridiculous pace. After about a ten minute continuous soloing, Nuno introduced Tosin Abasi and everyone other than bass player Pete Griffin (Zappa Plays Zappa), keyboardist Nick Marinovich (Yngwie Malmsteen) and Matt Garstka (Animals As Leaders) left the stage to let Mr. Abasi play his selected songs off of the Animals As Leaders three LPs. Tosin is incredibly controlled in his playing. Even at ridiculous speeds, he is smooth, technically stunning and accurate, playing his new eight string Ibanez and his unusual, headless Rick Toone guitars to perfection. Mid-set Pete Griffin was allowed to rail his bass with a jaw-dropping solo of slapping, muted rumbling and finger speed as fast as Mercury’s feet. My first time seeing Tosin even surprised me. He is just as proficient live as he is on any studio track I have heard. A great way to start off the show!
Abasi was joined on stage by Nuno Bettencourt for half of his last song where Tosin returned the favor, introducing him and exiting. Nuno went directly into “Get the Funk Out” with the addition of an extended, bluesy, shredded solo and his great singing voice. Where Abasi wows with technical prowess, Bettencourt oozes with feel and a strong sense of tension, release and musical movement. He has gotten much better since last I saw him more than twenty years ago. Nuno also has a fun, energetic and humorous stage presence that was incredibly entertaining to watch. I was never a huge fan of Extreme but Bettencourt is very deserving as part of this tour. Such and amazing guitarist. His second tune was a blistering, solo-acoustic instrumental piece. It was hard not to float listening to this well chosen song. I found myself closing my eyes and just listening to this gorgeous instrumental. Very moving indeed. Keeping with his humorous presence he informed the audience that while choosing his final song, we watched a YouTube video of a young person doing a medley of tunes: riff-solo-riff-solo-riff-solo. If we liked it, cool, it was his idea. If you don’t, blame the damned kid; and with that roared off into some of the best guitar work from his entire career. Quite a sight to behold.
With a warm hug and a few kind words, Zakk Wylde took the stage with Nuno to play their rendition of “Sideways” by Citizen Cope. Beautifully sung by Wylde and with great harmonizing between these two carried the frenzied audience to their feet (a lot of people were there for Wylde, obviously). Once done, Nuno graciously bowed out, letting Zakk scream into Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.”. By then, I don’t think anyone was sitting down. The raw power Zakk exudes truly commands the stage. Playing all over the stage, so everyone gets to see his mastery at work he continues into a little bit of Hendrix before heading out into the audience to do a 15 minute solo in the middle of The Allman Brothers “Whipping Post”. I know security was driven nuts as he moved through all three aisles to perform for everyone in the lower arena, up close and personal. No only is he a great guitarist but also among the best live performers on the planet. Nobody that was there to see him was disappointed I am certain of. Once formally introducing bass player Pete Griffin, keyboardist Nick Marinovich and drummer Matt Garstka, Wylde rips off a few more riffs, lifts his guitar above his head and leaves the stage to the Neo-Classical animal, Yngwie Malmsteen.
I have not seen Malmsteen in over 20 years but absolutely love his technique and sound and could hardly control my excitement when he took the stage. Starting off with “Spellbound” and then going directly into “Into Valhalla”, Yngwie just shines. With an ever present smile on his face, he effortlessly rips the maple off of his signature Fender Stratocaster. So fast (at times, I completely expected his guitar to detonate), so brilliant, so cleanly played. I stayed on my feet the entire set. Almost would seem disrespectful to sit as I watched a man that has influenced an entire genre of music. His classically based “Overture” and “Far Beyond the Sun” followed, played partially on an electric, classical guitar. A gorgeous interlude to his normally rambunctious music and guitar juggling antics he is known for. After a few word with the audience, b finished his set with John Stafford Smith’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Black Star” with Steve Vai. At set’s end, Malmsteen exited, stage right, giving Vai the stage for his highly anticipated set.
Well, apparently EVERYONE was excited about Vai, and with good reason. His musical direction is like no others’ and he razed the stage with “Now We Run”, “Tender Surrender” and “Gravity Storm”. His talent is sick. Plain and simple. He feels every…single…note, much of time singing along with the guitar while laughing or expressing his connection with the music through his signature facial expressions. Vai’s playing is absolutely perfect. Every time I have seen him, it could have been recorded and pressed to album without a second take and this was no exception. He is one of those guitarists that I just cannot get my head around. His playing truly makes the instrument sing, talk, weep and cry. Like Malmsteen, he is in a category of precisely one. How this much talent be imbibed to one person I will never comprehend. At breakneck speeds, a slow bend or some exotic scale run, everything fits together perfectly and done with such ease. Vai is a dazzling performer with a wonderful stage presence.
Upon finishing his set with “Building the Church” with Tosin Abasi, everyone other than Yngwie joined in the fun for The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” (hey, where is Eddie?). Bettencourt takes a turn at the drums. Zakk sings. Everyone joins in a friendly game of “finish THIS riff” where nobody even breaths as they tear through mind bending runs. This is madness, I tell you! By this time, security had pretty much given up keeping people out of the aisles or going up to the stage. No fighting, pushing or moshing here. Everyone simply wanting to be as close to the action as possible. As a fitting finale to this incredible show, “Highway Star” by Deep Purple, sung by Zakk Wylde and Yngwie Malmsteen while being played by everyone else. This was nothing but a ten minute, shred-fest. The gloves were off and the whole thing turned into a Goliath-killing free for all. When it was all said and done, each artist met the audience at the lip of the stage, taking time to talk, shake hands, fist bump or just a kind salute. Each one is definitely in their element up there.
This tour is nothing short of a guitarist’s wet dream. It is riff and solo guitar porn at it’s best. Entertaining, brilliantly played and performed by some of the best on the planet. Hell, I have paid the price of admission for this show to see these guys individually. Seeing them together was spectacular and worth every penny. I still sit in awe as I write this. A truly memorable night. Get’s me to thinking though, who would I like to see on a Generation Axe II tour. Eddie Van Halen, John Petrucci, Chimp Spanner, Buckethead and John 5 maybe. Damn, throw in Brad Paisley and Andy Timmons too. What about Joe Stump and Vinnie Moore? No, no, wait! How about…