Ipswich: Regent-bound Steve Vai on why it’s fun to break the rules

He’s simply one of the world’s best guitarists; playing with the likes of Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, Alice Cooper - and he’s coming to Ipswich. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to the legendary Steve Vai.

“Why not,” laughs Vai when I ask why he’d want to make one largely instrumental concept album; let alone three.

“That’s one of the fun things about having the life of an artist, you can do whatever you want; there’re no rules. As long as you’re doing something your core audience resonates with... you can continue doing it.”

But then the virtuoso guitarist and visionary composer has avoided stereotypical labels during his long career.

“I never tried to avoid it; it’s been a natural, organic kind of thing. I never wanted my identity to be based on what other people think or expect,” he says as we talk about The Story of Light, a sprawling and expressive 12-song set continuing the conceptual and cosmic narrative arc begun on his acclaimed 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections.

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It follows the journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment and redemption.

“The songs are more or less depictions of characters, events that take place. When you listen to the music you don’t necessarily have to be bogged down by an esoteric storyline; but if a person is interested in gleaming shadows of the story they can read the liner notes and start putting puzzle pieces together.

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“The goal is after the three records are released is to sometime in the future take all the music, put it in the proper order and rework some of it with more lyrics, maybe add another record of narrative so when it’s done it’ll be properly a four-hour linear story like a rock opera of sorts that you can sit and listen to.”

Although The Story of Light is largely instrumental, it does feature guest vocalists - including singer songwriter Aimee Mann - who duets with Vai on No More Amsterdam, which she also co-wrote - and Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on The Voice (USA).

McClellan appears on John the Revelator, a track inspired by a vintage recording of blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, whose acid soaked vocals are in the mix as well. “When I heard the original version I wanted to take a sample of it, build these huge guitars around it and create this second part, Book of the Seven Seals... both of those were actually one piece. I wanted it to be almost like this completely over the top, Broadway presentation that mixes gospel with choir; but I needed somebody to sing it that really had the goods. I knew I couldn’t do that for that song.

“I’d seen Beverly perform at a Grammy function, I’d never watched the TV show The Voice. I was completely captivated, I said ‘I’ve got to get her to sing on John the Revelator’. It worked so well she’s on tour with me now; she opens the show and occasionally comes out and sings Revelator.”

The seeds of Mann’s involvement were sowns much further back during Vai’s student days.

They were both at Berklee College of Music at the same time; living a couple of doors away from each other in the same apartment building.

“My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife [Pia Maiocco, former bass player of Vixen] was best friends with Aimee; so through the years we’ve always had her music in the house... she’s like a poet, her voice has this beautiful vulnerability but confidence.

“My music and her music are worlds apart but I wrote this piece and started to write the lyrics and I just hit a block. My wife said ‘why don’t you call Aimee’, I thought this piece of music was not so far removed from something I thought she might be interested in so I contacted her. She liked it and wrote all the lyrics and did the co-singing with me.”

Vai rarely works with anybody else on his solo work, laughingly describing his music as “not a democracy”. He oversees virtually every aspect, from the song-writing, recording of the instruments, the mixing.

“The Story of Light with Aimee was really the only real collaboration I’ve done besides way back. I’ve collaborated with many people in the past, I’m not opposed to working with other people; but on a creative level until I find somebody who really resonates with what I’m doing and I feel can really enhance it I’m happy being my own little warlord in my own little bubble,” he laughs.

The three-time Grammy winner has had an amazing career. You name a rock star, chances are he’s played with them. He must have some great memories?

“Oh yeah, that’s true. They really were [great times] and I made the most of them - young, good looking, skinny and all that stuff; I say that with tongue in cheek,” laughs Vai, who grew up with fellow guitar legend Joe Satriani. The two are still close friends today.

“What a great opportunity to be 20-years-old touring with Frank Zappa; then to be 24-25 and touring with Dave Lee Roth in a rock star extravaganza, then to be with Whitesnake and all the bands in-between. Whenever I went into any of those bands I always felt my contribution was appropriate. I’m a dutiful soldier, I can collaborate very nicely and I have with all those situations and the results have retained an authenticity.

“But also they were just great fun. I look at some of those videos and stuff and think ‘wow man I really had a great time’. There comes a time where you really, for me at least, I needed to express the musical voice in my head. When I put all that stuff aside and [thought] I wasn’t ever going to sell another record but it’s okay because this is what I have to do. Much to my surprise and good fortune my solo music has been the most successful stuff.”

It’s been a rewarding road to success, educationally and financially says Vai. The most rewarding parts though is all the stuff he didn’t think was going to be rewarding when he was doing it.

“You look back... the stuff that points out to you your own flaws, where you learn from them and you grow. For me to give you the characteristic answer of ‘oh yeah, I remember when I was standing on the front of the stage in Madison Square Garden, doing my solo and there I was finally, Madison Square Garden sold out’; that’s all great too but it’s transitory, fleeting.

“I’m grateful for it, but really I don’t think the universe cares about that kind of stuff as much as it cares about shaping your moral fibre. I look back at the great life lessons I’ve learned about myself and the world and those are the most rewarding moments.”

To the tour, which will include a smattering of new material, some favourites and some material he hasn’t played live either in a while or ever.

Vai is a music fan; he tries to put together the kind of show he’d like to see.

“Ultimately what I want people to experience when they come to a show is... I want them to feel very fulfilled on many levels – on a musical level I want them to feel like they’ve seen brilliant musicians, I want them to feel some comic release, some production; I mean I change my clothes three times during the show.

“We have some funny little moments, as far as my budget can afford we try to stretch the production and on an overall band level I always try to add an element to the band that’s a little different. In my last band I had two violin players; in this band I have Deborah Hensen who is an electric harpist extraordinaire and it just adds so much to the show visually and musically and audibly.

“I think the show is going to be a big surprise and I thank the fans for their support in the past and really hope they can make it to the show and find some great value and uplifting feelings from it. We certainly love playing it.”

Steve Vai comes to the Ipswich Regent on December 6.

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