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Steve Vai

From his very un-‘eavy, very un-‘umble beginnings as part of the FRANK ZAPPA ensemble in the early 80s, to solo artist and much-in-demand session star, American metal-fusion “stunt guitarist” STEVE VAI has wowed audiences the world over with his virtuoso and unique fast-fingered techniques.
Born Steven Siro Vai, June 6, 1960, Carle Place, New York, the precocious talents of SV was raised on the likes of HENDRIX, LED ZEPPELIN and JEFF BECK. Having been taught guitar by neighbour JOE SATRIANI (four years his senior), Steve progressed from high school student to attending Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music; it was there he had the brainwave of sending avant-garde kingpin FRANK ZAPPA transcriptions (entitled “Black Page”). Upon meeting the man himself, he joined up to the man’s ever-changing brotherhood of musicians, duly playing on albums from “Tinseltown Rebellion” (1981), “Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch” (1982) and “Man From Utopia” (1983) to “Them Or Us” (1984) and “Thing-Fish” (1984).
During a ZAPPA interim (and there were not many of these!), STEVE VAI found time to issue a solo album, FLEX-ABLE (1984) {*7}, which, after its initial copies ran out on the small Urantia imprint, sold like hotcakes for Relativity, via Akashic Records. Augmented by a plethora of musicians from bassist Stu Hamm and Chris Frazier (stalwarts over the subsequent several years), mentor ZAPPA played a big part in influencing the 23-year-old’s equally off-kilter whimsies; `Little Green Men’, `Call It Sleep’ and `Lovers Are Crazy’ very much in that “Tinseltown” mould.
Now much in demand, Steve became part of hard-rock supergroup, ALCATRAZZ, superseding Swedish phenomenon YNGWIE MALMSTEEN for the band’s swansong instalment, “Disturbing The Peace” (1985). During a spell of activity that would even put Frank Z to shame, the young man played the guitar-grinding Devil in Walter Hill’s movie, Crossroads, while also finding time to lay down all the six-string work for PUBLIC IMAGE LTD’s “Album” set. The egocentric DAVID LEE ROTH was the next person to seek out his services, VAI staying and co-writing on two pop-metal albums, “Eat ‘Em And Smile” (1986) and “Skyscraper” (1988), before moving on to WHITESNAKE and playing on their “Slip Of The Tongue” (1989).
The following year, while still a member of the aforementioned outfit, VAI released his long-awaited solo follow-up, PASSION AND WARFARE (1990) {*8}, a remarkable and innovative disc which brought delightfully fresh experimentation to the world of guitar-slinging hard-rock. Its reviews and his consummate CV ensured it a Top 20 placing on both sides of the Atlantic, marking out the axeman, alongside his teacher, SATRIANI, as one of the greatest guitar shredders in the world. With plenty of bombastic elements but not a vocal in sight (‘cept for the story behind `The Audience Is Listening’), the swaggering and stylish Steve is best summed up on `For The Love Of God’, `Erotic Nightmares’ and `Sisters’.
In 1993, Steve turned his head to more commercially viable roots, his band VAI taking on an old ZAPPA drummer, Terry Bozzio, plus bassist T.M. Stevens and singer DEVON TOWNSEND, for the album, SEX & RELIGION {*4}. Bogged down by the constraints of working with a band again, leadership qualities were not VAI’s forte as the transatlantic Top 50 set was duly pasted by the critics for its pedestrian and predictable hard-rock/pop-metal; rare singles `Down Deep Into The Pain’ and `In My Dreams With You’ (the latter co-penned with DESMOND CHILD) were typical OTT machinations.
Over the course of the next few years, a solo STEVE VAI released further sets ALIEN LOVE SECRETS (1995) {*5} and FIRE GARDEN (1996) {*6}, both UK chart entries but only moderate sellers on home soil after bubbling under the Top 100. Futuristic, sonic and symphonic, the second of these, a concept, was split into two “phases”, highlighting nearly 75 minutes of action-packed instrumental metal; side two stretched his vocal prowess on the likes of `Little Alligator’, `All About Eve’ and the QUEEN-like `Genocide’.
VAI then turned up on a collaboration set, 3G: LIVE IN CONCERT {*6}, alongside ERIC JOHNSON and, who else but, JOE SATRIANI; not his last venture with the latter. After a slightly disappointing effort, THE ULTRA ZONE (1999) {*6}, which paid homage to the passing of modern blues idol STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN and his old boss ZAPPA, VAI came up with the most ambitious project of his career, to write a series of songs about different countries and record them in the origins concerned. The double-set ALIVE IN AN ULTRA WORLD (2001) {*6} was the result, both a global grand tour and a journey through the axeman’s feverishly inventive mind. Side by side with SATRIANI and YGNWIE MALMSTEEN, G3: ROCKIN’ IN THE FREE WORLD (2004) {*6} was the second in the corresponding collaborative series.
2005’s long-awaited concept (or “rock fable”) REAL ILLUSIONS: REFLECTIONS {*7} was true to form for VAI. Very much in the mould of STEVE HACKETT albums of the 70s and 80s, the guitarist arcs the rainbow and pushes out the envelope on a few funky trailblazers; the brassy `Firewall’ and weird talkbox-enhanced `Yai Yai’, were two scene-stealing vignettes in between the likes of the heavy and showboating book-ends `Building The Church’ and `Under It All’.
A promo tour supported by rhythm section, Billy Sheehan and Jeremy Colson (plus the Metropole Orkest) seemed to be the way to go, as symphony scores or his performance sets subsequently littered the market from then on in; the concert CDs included G3: LIVE IN TOKYO (2005) {*6} – with Messrs JOE SATRIANI and JOHN PETRUCCI – and 2007’s SOUND THEORIES, VOL. I & II {*6} – cut from live recordings from 2004-05. The latter was another to be split into two factions, while the double-CD also incorporated tracks that dated as far back as 1978 (`Answers’) and the 80s (on several cuts). WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009) {*6} and its companion piece WHERE THE OTHER WILD THINGS ARE: LIVE IN MINNEAPOLIS (2010) {*6}, kept the VAI train of thought rolling along nicely; his band were now Alex DuPue and Ann Marie Calhoun (violin, keyboards), Bryan Beller (bass), Dave Weiner (guitar, sitar), Zack Wiesinger (lap steel) and Colson.
After an off-kilter effort with Bob Harris, Steve Vai presents WESTERN UNION (2010) {*5}, drummer Colson would be retained (adding Philip Bynoe on bass) for VAI’s “comeback” studio set THE STORY OF LIGHT (2012) {*7}. Ambitious and expanding his horizons via blues, gospel and funk, the cosmic metallist served up BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON’s `John The Revelator’, trail-blazed by Beverly McClellan’s choir-backed reprise of `Book Of The Seven Seals’; the dreamy and blissful `Creamsicle Sunset’ also slowed the pace. Despite another lighter-toned `No More Amsterdam’ (a duet with AIMEE MANN) and a Celtic/trad instrumental interlude (`Mullach a’ tSi’), VAI almost broke the sound barrier a la `Gravity Storm’, `Velorium’ and `Racing The World’. As expected, the man would expect loyal fans to fork out part of the nest-egg pension on the extravagant STILLNESS IN MOTION: VAI LIVE IN L.A. (2015) {*6} – over 2 hours and 22 tracks of a concert at Club Nokia on October 12, 2012.
© MC Strong 1994-2001/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015

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