Steve Vai: Strings and Things
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2010
Steve Vai continues to explore the wild stringdom of his infinite musical universe with Where the Wild Things Are, his new and ambitious live performance DVD.
It is undoubtedly no small feat to keep up with a virtuoso guitarist like Steve Vai, especially when performing some of his more intricately arranged songs. So when it came to pulling together a band for his new nearly three-hour-long live-performance DVD, Where the Wild Things Are, the guitarist knew he needed a band that was up to the rigors of the job.
“I needed to have a special group of people that would be able to work as hard as was necessary to make this music come to life,” Vai says. “You can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, but it still may not sound like music; it’ll just sound like numbers if you’re not careful. And this band had the talent—and, most importantly, the desire—to transcend the rigors of the task.”
Recorded and filmed in 2009 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Where the Wild Things Are showcases an expansive two-hour-and-40-minute set that features new arrangements of many of Vai’s greatest tracks. Highlights include fan favorites such as “Liberty,” “Tender Surrender,” “Building the Church,” “Answers” and “For the Love of God.” The DVD offers 26 songs, plus more than an hour of bonus material, including behind-the-scenes action and band interviews. For this special project, Steve assembled a new lineup of virtuosi: violinists Alex DePue and Ann Marie Calhoun, bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Jeremy Colson, guitarist Dave Weiner and lap steel player Zack Wiesinger.
To say that some of the music on Where the Wild Things Are is difficult, or ambitious, is a huge understatement. “Close to impossible” would be a more accurate description. But since his days as Frank Zappa’s “stunt transcriber” and performer of “impossible guitar parts,” Vai has been no stranger to pulling off the impossible and making it look easy. “Whether the music I’m working on is complex or not,” Vai says, “at the end of the day, it has to sound like a piece of music, not a musically intellectual gymnastic exercise.”
Steve Vai was born on June 6, 1960, in Carle Place, Long Island, New York (he was six on 6/6/66 for you numerology fans). At 19, he came to international prominence as a member of Frank Zappa’s band, and followed this intense apprenticeship with the unenviable task of filling Yngwie Malmsteen’s shoes in Alcatrazz. That, however, was a cakewalk compared to his next assignment: filling Edward Van Halen’s shoes as the guitar foil to rock madman David Lee Roth. The result was one of rock’s most successful and well-loved albums, Roth’s 1986 release, Eat ’Em and Smile. Thanks to the album and its tour, Vai’s stature quickly skyrocketed, securing him a place in the pantheon of rock’s great virtuoso guitarists.
Vai stopped in at the Guitar World studios to discuss this expansive new live DVD, his band and his thoughts on the eternal quest for pure and inspired musical expression.
GUITAR WORLD What was the inspiration behind putting the material together for Where the Wild Things Are?
STEVE VAI I was coming off of my Sound Theories Vol. 1 and 2 project, for which I worked with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, performing orchestral versions of many of my compositions. That was a big project: it took a long time to compose and arrange the new music, and then get it all copied, rehearse the orchestra, and perform and record all of the shows. From there, I had to edit all of the material from five different shows to put the double disc together.
It was a long process, but it came out really nice. Sound Theories is a very eclectic record—but what would you expect? At that point, I probably should have gone back into the studio to begin working on a new album, but that meant it would have been years between tours with my own band. I thrive on live performance; I’m a touring musician. I’m always looking forward to getting back on tour, because it’s in my blood. So I instead decided to do it down-and-dirty—put together a new show and get back out on the road.