Photo by Anca Coleașă

When art sings through strings: Steve Vai live at Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki 07.05.

Author John Wins - 12.5.2023

The night of Sunday, May 7th, featured a living legend in the capital of Finland. Steve Vai is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and all the fans present inside Kulttuuritalo were waiting for the chance to watch such artist in action.

The concert’s audience was mostly made up of an older generation of fans, some of them with their children, wearing t-shirts just purchased from the merch table, but there were also a good number of well-known musicians and producers from the Finnish scene.

When Steve appeared on stage after a brief pre-recorded intro, it was already possible to see the smile and contagious joy of the American guitarist with his blue-light guitar. In the first two songs, “Avalancha” and “Giant Balls of Gold”, it was also possible to see how charismatic and friendly Vai is on stage as he interacts with the audience and his bandmates.

The mysterious intro to “Little Pretty”, also featured on the latest studio album “Inviolate”, brings a mystical mood to the show, something that is always present in Vai’s career. It was interesting to see rhythm guitarist Dante Frisiello on keyboards, something that would be normal for the rest of the night.

Before the ballad “Tender Surrender” begins, Steve introduces each member of his band and crew, always with positive words and hugs. So far, only the videos on the big screen differ from the quality of the virtuoso. Some animations are dated and sometimes steal attention due to the excess of information on the screen.

“Incantation” showcases the cohesive work of the band’s groove section. Bassist Philip Bynoe and drummer Jeremy Colson show a genuine bond, leading to a quick solo by Philip after an interesting participation by part of the crew team, where each one has a guitar. It’s not every day that we see five guitarists on stage.

In “Candlepower”, Steve returns with a hat, and in the power trio format, the musician shows his technique without a guitar pick while green lights color the band’s rhythm. Dante also has a moment in the spotlight and makes an interesting solo before Steve destroys everything in “Building the Church”, showing that his level is far above of other mere mortals.

“Greenish Blues” goes deep into the blues side of the musician, but before that, a brief auctioning moment occurs, where Steve comments that some equipment is for sale and the money will be raised for an INGO. Going to a show and coming back with gear that belonged to Steve Vai doesn’t sound like a bad idea, does it?

For fans who got to know the guitarist’s work in the 80s or 90s, the 1986 film Crossroads was certainly something remarkable, and the show does not miss this iconic moment in his career. With a brief clip from the film as the lead-in to “Bad Horsie”, you can see, hear, and feel the mischievous side of his guitar. One of the highlights of the night!

With his classic signature guitar and this time with an interesting video illustrating its melody, Steve delivers a simple performance for “I’m Becoming”, while “Whispering a Prayer” brings something more introspective that really delivers the meaning of its title. It’s as if his chords, arpeggios, and solos replace his voice and gain eloquence in the electric form that translates his thoughts. It is surreal to witness this kind of experience live.

“Dyin’ Day” has been a fine moment on this tour, as the song is finally being played live, more than 25 years after its release on 1996’s “Fire Garden”. The track has a folk style, with Dante playing an acoustic guitar. Before what was about to happen, a brief drum solo by Jeremy, who has been in the band for over 20 years.

Then comes the craziest moment of the night: Steve Vai vs. the three-necked Ibanez Hydra. “Teeth of the Hydra”, which is also part of the latest studio album, is nothing more than Steve showing that even at 60 years old he keeps his technique, mind, and creativity at the top. With a swing, malevolence, and incredible agility, the musician has fun while maintaining absurd concentration.

In “Zeus in Chains” and especially “Liberty”, Vai shows that his melodies are unique in the world of guitarists. Melodies you can sing that stick in your mind like brainworms, and the main musical landmark of his career was about to be presented in a few minutes…

“For the Love of God” is undoubtedly a classic of world music. Mesmerizing and revolutionary in the way it helped spread the virtuoso style of instrumental music over three decades ago. During the current tour, Steve has been calling on Dani G, who is part of his production, to perform an operatic intro in the best tenor style. It must be invigorating for the musician to do something different on the same song that he has been performing for so many years, but I believe it took away some of the beauty of hearing the first notes through the guitar and not sharing attention with another element, in this case a voice. Yet the rest of the track is kept in its original format, with the precision, feeling, and poetry that Steve manages to convey in this anthem.

The encore happens with “Fire Garden Suite IV – Taurus Bulba”, where the ‘mission accomplished’ feeling is visible on the guitarist’s face. After finishing the song, Steve takes a microphone and, showing his well-known gratitude, thanks all the team and fans who attended the last show of the European tour. What a gentleman!

Kulttuuritalo has already hosted some of the most legendary artists of all time, and once again Vai was there, adding even more quality to this legendary gallery while remaining a reference that crosses generations. When Steve is onstage, we are mesmerized into a universe where everything looks and certainly sounds better.