ONE OF THE tragic injustices of contemporary cultural trends has been the shunning of the virtuosic. New Zealand, unlike larger and more culturally diverse countries, took the DIY credo of punk to its breast, and thenceforth, musicians displaying stunning technical facility have been treated like pariahs.
It’s easy to see why the DIY thing rang true. There’s that running cliché about New Zealanders being jack-of-all-trades, and why the heck would you need a specialist to build a fence or fix a car when a good Kiwi bloke should be able to do all that and down a good dozen on a Friday night. We’ve always been suspicious of specialists, and especially, those who excelled in any particular skill. Only mountain climbing and rugby is immune from this strange leveling of the playing field.
Add to this a small cabal of rock reviewers versed in the supposed authenticity of punk and ‘roots’ music, who don’t themselves have the understanding or the language to articulate or discuss music for music’s sake, and there’s going to be a clear skew towards the kind of music reviewers can write about – essentially folk music, music that contains basic chords, an emphasis on lyrics, and a lot of beginners’ strumming.
The virtuosic in rock music has always been viewed suspiciously by some because of the music’s supposed genesis in raw blues, a view that conveniently ignores the fact that no music form has been immune to influence. Look at the “race music” influence on dirt-poor country, and vice-versa, or the classical influence on jazz. Music is a virus, after all, and the notion that the big beating heart of rock should remain true to Bo Diddley is like saying all human life should remain true to the authenticity of the African tribes we all originated from.
So, it’s okay for a classical player to show off his musical chops, as it is for an Indian traditional virtuoso, but because of this erroneous and distorted perception that ‘rock’ is somehow separate from other musical universes, the virtuoso rock player is pilloried as a buffoon, an empty soul, as if he’s covering up his deficiencies with endless displays of showmanship.
That can be true, of course. I remember sitting through a John McLaughlin concert in the early ‘80s that was technically brilliant, but aside from endless displays of technique, lacked any of the qualities I look for in musical performance: there were no memorable compositions, no sense of musicians getting off on each others’ playing, and it all just seemed so… empty. [I hasten to add that McLaughlin, at his best, is one of my favourite guitarists].
Steve Vai has often been accused of the same thing. His music is a lot more visceral than McLaughlin’s, but showmanship and wowing the audience with his technical abilities is a key part of his performative schtick. That might come across as crass to some, but I’d challenge even the hardiest detractor of widdly-widdly guitar to sit through last night’s Steve Vai show and not admit that they were a little bit impressed.
What Indian ‘classical’ musicians do is use their hard-won techniques to multiple purposes: those incredibly fast musical passages, both arranged and improvised, are partly about wowing the audience, but really, the deeper meaning is in the level of engagement, the knowledge that the skill is hard-won, and more importantly, the exultant feeling the listener gets when his brain focuses on the shooting sparks of all those flying note clusters. It’s exactly the same listening to Steve Vai and his musical buddies. Vai is clearly at the top of his game, and I doubt that there’s an electric guitarist on the planet who could combine his technical facility with his musical ability, and harness it in a show that is never less than thrilling during its two-and-a-half hours. Yes, really. And besides that, he how could anyone resist the cool noises he gets out of that guitar?
Part of it is that Vai really engages with his audience, he respects his audience, and is there to entertain them. He jokes that most of the half-full ASB Theatre are male guitarists, and he’s probably right, but the show isn’t just for music students.
Vai’s charming and affable character helps win us over, but the whole performance has a carefully arranged dynamic flow, and importantly, the rhythm section are so tight and funky (yes, sir) that even if I had been bored by Vai’s soloing, I could have gotten enough out of the grooves to enjoy the evening.
There’s so much humour, levity and bonhomie, and even variety, that all my critical faculties were soon in abeyance, and just when you’re starting to wonder if you can stomach yet another round of guitar mangling, there’ll be an acoustic set (with vocals!) or a surprise entrance by the drummer with a bizarre portable, skull-and-flashing-lights-encrusted percussion contraption, or Vai himself will turn up in a sci-fi costume with flashing lights and lasers. Yes, this guy knows how to take the piss out of both himself and the obvious clichés of his craft. So there are costume changes and solo turns by other band members (check Simon Sweetman’s apt review of the Wellington show here for more specific musicianly details) and audience participation and standing ovation, and Vai is still standing alone on the stage talking to the audience and bowing after the lights have come up and the audience is starting reluctantly to file out.
Just brilliant. GARY STEEL
Note: I must mention the ASB Theatre, which has recently undergone a massive redo, and more importantly, some kind of bizarre, highly technical acoustic makeover. I was lucky enough to hear the APO a few months back in an inaugural performance in this new environment (which is to become the orchestra’s regular venue), and was amazed at the clarity of the audio. Hearing a full-on rock band in the venue was just as impressive: while the bass at times was almost too pervasive (at least where I was sitting), the overall clarity was astonishing. It’s so great to finally have a medium-sized concert venue in which acoustics have been the first consideration. I hope to get the full lowdown on how they got it sounding so good in a future article.