“I’ve been touring the world for forty-three years!”
If there is any musician who’s earned bragging rights to longevity, rock guitar virtuoso Steve Vai certainly belongs on that list. On a recent night in Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre, Steve and his band reminded a sold-out house of his relevance and endurance on a night that was wall-to-wall guitar rock magnificence.
For those who might think rock guitar is all about power chords, volume, and squealing lead runs, a Steve Vai show quickly dispels that notion. Punctuated with moments of levity, humor, and self-deprecation (albeit with plenty of rockstar poses, a killer light show, and an energy that got more intense throughout the show), the joy onstage was palpable and translated into an evening of immense fun for over 600 fans packed into the intimate Rickshaw (acknowledged by fans and bands alike as one of Vancouver’s favorite venues) on August 15.
Raised in a musical family, Vai has described the original motion picture soundtrack to the 1961 film, “West Side Story,” as his musical awakening at the age of eleven. But it was Jimmy Page’s soloing on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” that prompted taking up the guitar and by 1973, Vai was taking guitar lessons from Joe Satriani (who would soon become a widely admired guitar virtuoso in his own right). He continued honing his chops throughout high school playing in a series of local rock bands.
A dazzling guitarist, composer, and producer (and beekeeper — more on that later), Vai is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time. After enrolling at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he left during his fourth semester to move to California (he nonetheless received an Honorary Doctorate of Music in 2003) to begin working as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa. Thus began a career as a session musician and touring artist with Zappa. Citing influences ranging from Hendrix and Page to Jeff Beck and Al DiMeola, Vai has himself become a leader among rock guitar instrumentalists that includes such contemporary luminaries as the aforementioned Satriani, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Even as he continues receiving well-deserved accolades for his work (selling over 15 million records and garnering 15 Grammy nominations, winning three) he mentors and encourages young guitarists through workshops, clinics, and his non-profit organization, The Make A Noise Foundation. Most recently, Vai added former local DC multi-instrumentalist, Dante Frisiello, to his backing band replacing long-time guitarist Dave Weiner, a subject Parklife DC recently covered with Dante.
Watching Vai’s band, Frisiello (guitar, keys), Philip Bynoe (bass), and Jeremy Colson (drums), is like watching a well-oiled, rhythmic, and loud (!) machine. Vai’s ability to wrench otherworldly sounds from his guitars is enough to test the most accomplished musicians and these guys did their best to push back, prompting Vai to even more seemingly impossible and flawless lead runs. Additionally, Vai’s compositions incorporate time signatures and key changes that, like Zappa’s work, can challenge even the most accomplished musicians.
Listen to Steve Vai’s most recent solo release, Inviolate, on Spotify.
But the show was about more than simply jaw-dropping guitar technique and skill. Vai is a master entertainer, a fact that became evident early on in the set. He danced and roamed about the stage, interacting and encouraging his bandmates, broad smiles across all their faces. When he took the microphone, he regaled the audience with jokes and stories from the road, ingratiating himself to the Canadian audience by noting that he “wanted to spend a lot of time in Canada touring from end to end” and complimenting Vancouver as “the best city in the world.”
At precisely 8pm, Steve and company materialized onstage, opening with “Avalancha’s” muscular power chords, and leading into “Giant Balls of Gold.” Although the focus throughout the show was undeniably on Vai, each band member received a lengthy solo section, showcasing their considerable talents. Frisiello, the band’s newest member, had his work cut out for him but has clearly become an integral addition, while Bynoe and Colson, comprise a powerful rhythm section that flawlessly drove the whole enterprise. During “Incantation,” even the guitar techs joined in onstage receiving their own moments in the spotlight.
Watch Steve Vai perform “Zeus in Chains” at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, Italy on July 4, 2023.
Giant Balls of Gold
Lights Are On
Incantation (w/Guitar Techs)
Bass Solo (Philip Bynoe)
Guitar Solo (Dante Frisiello)
Building the Church
Whispering a Prayer
Drum Solo (Jeremy Colson)
Teeth of the Hydra
Zeus in Chains
For the Love of God
Fire Garden Suite IV – Taurus Bulba
I mentioned earlier that Vai is a beekeeper, harvesting nearly a thousand pounds of Fire Garden honey, the proceeds of which go toward raising funds for The Make A Noise Foundation. Beekeepers (including yours truly) understand when Steve says, “When I’m with the bees, I’m very present and perhaps that somehow flows into my musical creativity. You need to be present when you are playing with bees. I also notice what an amazing social structure they have and how they work together so well. It’s inspiring.”
Many more live dates are planned throughout the year. For more music, videos and tour updates, please visit Steve’s website.
Here are some more photos of Steve Vai at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver on August 15, 2023. All photos courtesy and copyright of Mark Caicedo.