Steve Vai

The virtuoso guitarist brings his extravagant show to Mandela Hall

Within moments of the Mandela Hall opening its doors, Steve Vai is on stage with a full band, shredding on his guitar as if his life depends on it. It is immediately apparent that the renowned guitarist is going to cram as much music as is humanly possible into this Belfast concert.

For fans dashing into the auditorium at the last minute, there is a lot to take in – the driving hard rock of the back-up band, Vai’s trousers emblazoned with spiritual symbols (a la Jimmy Page), and the fact that he is performing a ludicrously complex two-handed tapping solo on a trademark Ibanez axe (with glowing neon fretboard), all while gurning like a loon at the audience to rapturous applause.

Those familiar with the stunt-guitar virtuoso’s work will not be surprised by all this, but what does come as a complete shock (to this reviewer at least), is how damn funny Vai is. After an uproarious intro – during which the axeman comes off with possibly the most hilariously terrible Irish accent I’ve ever heard – it is clear that despite his obvious skills, tonight is less about showing off than putting on a show.

Audience involvement is key, with Vai acting as master of ceremonies over an increasingly lunatic evening. Using his trademark floating tremolo technique and the innovative use of a wah pedal, he makes his guitar ‘talk’ to the audience between songs, and every member of the band gets to show off their own considerable skills, including backup guitarist Dave Wiener (no laughing at the back of the class).

This reaches its apex when shirtless drummer Jeremy Colson disappears, to Vai’s apparent disgust. ‘You just can’t rely on drummers!’ he moans. ‘He’s probably backstage whacking off!’ Of course it is all pastiche, with Colson appearing moments later wearing a mammoth drum kit strapped to his chest, replete with a talking skull. As Vai gets involved in a musical showdown with the skull, one gets the feeling that the surreal spirit of Frank Zappa (who Vai toured with in the 1980s) is alive and well.

Just when it seems that proceedings can’t possibly get any crazier, Vai disappears momentarily, only to return to the stage in a full robot suit, covered in flashing LEDs from head to toe, hammering out yet another explosive solo – orchestrating a full on laser light show with his guitar.

Even when Vai puts his civvies back on, there is still something otherwordly about him. He appears to ‘feel’ every semi-quaver, every pinched harmonic, body-popping along and pulling a mug’s gallery’s worth of crazy faces. At times it is hard to know where the guitar ends and Vai begins.

Vai blazes through a 33-year back catalogue of songs, including the nearest thing he has to a single, ‘The Audience Is Listening’, using every rock god stage technique known to man, and some more besides. During the ‘Build A Song’ segment he even writes an entire jam on the spot, based around melodies sung by members of the audience.

Fan favourite ‘For The Love Of God’ rounds off the evening, but sure enough Vai returns once more with an extended encore, during which he lets fervent front row fans waggle his whammy bar, and even uses his tongue as a guitar slide. A solid five minutes of applause follows, with Vai thanking people in every corner of the auditorium.

Steve Vai might not be everybody’s cup of tea. However his zany, charming personality and contagious enthusiasm permeates every aspect of tonight’s performance, making it a riot from beginning to end. Before he leaves the stage for the final time (to the strains of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’), he asks the audience if they feel good. After an inevitable roar of approval he grins widely. ‘Then our job is done,' he grins.