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Guitar master transcends clichés to reach music’s heart
ONE OF THE GREAT TRAGEDIES TO BEFALL THE CONTEMPORARY musical landscape has been the marginalization and even disdain towards the virtuosic. Since the emergence of the DIY ethic within the early waves of punk music in the early ’70s, and its focus on more technically accessible music, there’s been a growing tendency in some circles to treat musicians displaying stunning levels of technical facility with eyerolling derision.
This has been exacerbated by disenchanted rock reviewers, self-appointed authenticity police and armchair arbiters of cool who have turned their own preferences and tastes in music into a holy grail that all should strive for, but few will attain. The classical musician is praised for her breathtaking command of the instrument, the Chinese guzheng master is honored for his years of devotion to attain perfected expertise, but the virtuoso rock musician has come to be viewed as little more than a clown with a good juggling act. Admittedly, that reputation is sometimes deserved. There are, of course, technically proficient buffoons, highly skilled players with the soul of a Casio keyboard’s rhythm machine and bafflingly gifted musicians whose endless displays of technique are somehow hopelessly devoid of any inspiration or emotion.
When we listen to a master classical musician, or a skilled Indian raga-folk performer, for example, we recognize the techniques and appreciate the multiple facets these performances display. The blazingly fast passages are there in part to astound the audience, but there is a deeper purpose behind these displays. The engagement with the audience these displays create deepens the connection with the music and the performer. The understanding that these skills have been hard won, and the impassioned response in the listener’s mind when their brain is embraced by the flurries of notes melting into a melodic stream is what engages the listener and pulls them deeper into the contrasts and complexities of the music. In the hands of a serious virtuoso, this experience can transcend the musical genre.
Recently, guitarist and composer Steve Vai made an appearance at Track 29 and treated the audience to an evening that far transcended the usual stunt guitar performance. His grimaces and guitar-face palsy are legendary in the world of axe-fans from his appearances as the devil’s guitar player Jack Butler in the movie “Crossroads” as well as time providing guitar antics for artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd (PiL) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Vai is clearly one of the reigning gods of electric guitar. You would be hard pressed to find another guitarist alive today that can match his unique combination of technical ability, musical facility and showmanship. But like seasoned virtuosos within other forms of music, Vai harnesses his mastery of the instrument to engage the audience and draw them into experiencing the music rather than just hearing it.
The entire audience seemed to simultaneously and repeatedly retrieve their mouths from the floor as Vai guided them through a mind-blowing two-and-a-half hour set. He played the guitar as if it was an extension of his body, toying with the instrument the way a Harlem Globetrotter would toy with the ball—effortlessly demonstrating thousands of hours and years of work across many different stages and styles.
Is it stunt guitar? Yes. But Vai’s greatest skill may be the ability to use his technique to reflect his own charming and affable personality. He hip-shakes and funk sashays while recognizing the comedic value of the moment. He spoofs his role as guitar hero—while living inside of it and delighting in every moment of it.
Of course, instrumental electric guitar music is not for everyone and it is easy for many to find fault with the music and the performance. Vai is a magician, and as with any magician there will be some tackiness, there will be some schtick and there will be some clichés. But his performance is so extraordinary and the mastery so pitch-perfect that he transcends the silliness of the shred to create an entertaining, musically stunning experience that even the most jaded rock critic could not help but respect.
If you missed the Nov. 12 show, I encourage you to catch him anywhere, anyway that you can. For a taste of what you may have missed, I recommend his latest live recording, “Where the Wild Things Are” or his latest studio release “The Story of Light.”