Review: Steve Vai @ The Fortitude Music Hall (Brisbane)

Steve Vai and his band played The Fortitude Music Hall (Brisbane) on 3 November, 2023 - image © Clea-marie Thorne
With an insatiable passion for live music and photography adventures, this mistress of gig chronicles loves the realms of metal and blues but wanders all musical frontiers and paints you vibrant landscapes through words and pics (@lilmissterror) that share the very essence of her sonic journeys with you.

Come rain, hail or moonlight, Brisbane's Fortitude Valley Mall comes alive after dark most weekends, and the drizzle from tonight's sky is no exception.

I join the hustle and bustle as punters queue outside the doors of The Fortitude Music Hall (3 November) chomping at the bit to get inside to see Grammy Award-winning Steve Vai performing his as part of his 'Inviolate' tour.

Confession time. Since the 1980s, I've been fascinated by the exceptional guitar dexterities of Steve Vai – a wunderkind of the shred and guitar acrobatics. I discovered the 'Little Italian virtuoso' probably like many my age or older, through the likes of Frank Zappa, Whitesnake and David Lee Roth.

Roth may have been in love with the Yankee Rose, I was infatuated with this 'stunt guitarist' and his crazy manoeuvres; like slinging axes on straps over and around his shoulder. But when Vai made Grover Jackson's green Charvel talk and laugh wildly on that track, well he just blew my teenage mind.

From there, it was no leap for me to be excited for his new music as Vai progressed with his solo career, honing his craft not only on the axe but as a songwriter and producer. 'Passion And Warfare' (1990) and 'Alien Love Secrets' (1995) were staples in my collection rotation for a long time.

Speaking of durations. . . it's been a lengthy interval between licks since Vai has graced Australian stages. From the vibe I am getting from the all-ages crowd gathering inside the venue, he's going to get a big, warm and fuzzy Brissie welcome.

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Image © Clea-marie Thorne

The party is commencing, and it's Vai's band members who appear first on the darkened blue-lit hazy stage in front of us. Newest touring band member Dante Frisiello (guitar, keys/ synth) on our left already playing guitar, and as Vai's logo is fading into space elements on the digital backdrop, Jeremy Colson (drums) steps up on his drum riser at the back and centre of stage to greet us with a proud chest and sticks held high.

I can't leave out Philip Bynoe (bass) on our right, the longest touring member who is now flashing us his pearlies in a wide grin on hearing our welcome. With the mood set and intro in train, Vai enters stage right to our cheers yelled forwards to greet him.

The show commences with 'Avalancha (Inviolate)' – the word avalanche of course springs to mind and is a great way to describe how this party is getting started. From there Vai takes us straight into 'Giant Balls Of Gold' as he shreds like his life depends on it – but slick and steadfast and with incredible sustain.

Vai and Dante then take us on a journey of peaks and troughs in tempo with the likes of 'Little Pretty' (from 'Inviolate') and 'Alien Love Secrets'' 'Tender Surrender' – it's pure bliss. These tracks were followed by 'Lights Are On' (from 'Modern Primitive') where Vai is a tad good-insane on the pedal board.

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Image © Clea-marie Thorne

There are so many smiles around the room and a great vibe of music camaraderie, which is good to see with young ones in the room. Vai and the band are adept at keeping it all engaging onstage as the instrumental magic spills into our ears and the vibrations make our chests quiver.

An image of a melting burning candle is on the screen and you guessed it, 'Candlepower' is performed – how great it is to be hearing this live! The music has the ambience of a big jam session – where it has you believing the music goes places by player intuition rather than by rote, like a magic carpet ride.

For a treat, Frisiello gets his solo shine on, and we get more insight into why he was picked to join Team Vai. 'Building The Church' (from 'Real Illusion: Reflections') is an appropriate title, as we are all worshipping the blood, sweat and tears of Vai's musical creations, the new and resurrected, in a live show for us to witness in all their glory.

Vai tells us the next one is 'Greenish Blues', introducing it with some dialogue as his wife tells him he needs to talk to us more. Ha! Wifey wins.

'Bad Horsie' from 'Alien Love Secrets' galloped in and has us moving on the spot with our necks raising our heads up and down and bending at the knees to make our hips move with the ebb and flow and dirty chunky riffage.

Read our recent interview with Steve Vai.

The only song I recognise so far from 'Sounds Theories Vol. I & II', 'I'm Becoming' is played with a video on the digital screen showing us a foetus growing inside a womb. We show Vai our collective immaturity as we giggle together as the male appendage protrudes.

The foetus crowns and ahh, a young Vai is birthed. How do we know this? Its emerging face is represented by a crudely cut and pasted Photoshop pic of the smiling face of the man himself as a child. Vai clearly has a sense of humour!

'Whispering A Prayer' (from 2001 live album 'Alive In An Ultra World') has Vai doing more axe gymnastics, but not before its melody has first haunted our ears. Colson also gets his spotlight time hitting the tubs with precision, not that he hasn't already – but you know there's more of that to come.

The stage crew are carrying a cloaked item to the centre of the stage. Oh, how exciting! Vai unveils the Hydra, revealing its steam punkish body. Yes, it's time for another from the tour album, 'Teeth Of The Hydra' and Vai plays the absurd yet beautifully designed three-necked, two-headed monster guitar for us.

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Image © Clea-marie Thorne

A huge roar of appreciation for the song and spectacle is now filling the room. How is it this man can master playing three guitars at once when I'm flat out stretching my fingers across one fretboard to learn one?!

We next groove to 'Zeus In Chains' and it is infectious hard rock with bendy bass and lightning licks striking throughout. 'Liberty' frees our souls next and while it may be shorter and sweet, it's a gift from the guitar god to us punters who love the 'Passion And Warfare' album.

Vai next introduces us to his tour engineer, Danny G, as "a true lover of life" and "MMA fighter. . . and excellent opera singer". The almighty vocals of Danny G fill the room leading us into 'For The Love Of God' and it is thrilling.

The technical chops to this are incredible – changing styles up the wazoo, including sweep picking sections that trump. There's not a dead note among them.

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Image © Clea-marie Thorne

The hours went by unnoticed as Vai and the band kept us enthralled with the variety of sounds from a myriad of techniques and effects that held our attention. Vai's precision, clarity of tone and creative arrangements would have us believing his sole purpose on Earth is to invent a never-ending supply of tasty music morsels of technically dazzling virtuosity for us to consume.

I've left the tech issue recount till now. How good is this?! After his amp falls silent, we had just over a minute or so of Steve Vai UNPLUGGED on an electric! I could even hear it toward the back of the arena.

The man didn't miss a note as the sound dropped out and he kept playing as if nothing was awry! The music instead bounced off the venue acoustics. We held our breath listening then boom, we cheered as the sound came back through the speakers. It was an incredible moment that threatened again for a split second.

To witness punters respectfully being super quiet, so we could all hear every note and not moaning and Vai, continuing to play instead of downing his tools waiting for techs to sort the issue, is nothing but true rock & roll.

Vai had a couple of wardrobe change-ups too, but he had a lot more guitar swaps and there is no way I could count the different sounds Vai demonstrated to us tonight. His ability to keep things juicy is nothing short of extraordinary, as there has not been a lot of dialogue and none of his singing.

I also think the random fog effect and ever-present digital backdrop detailing his music clips and trippy digital psychedelia is encouraging our full immersion in the music. Luckily, Vai's logo appears from time to time, to remind us that we are not in a dream state with our headphones listening to a recording of Vai, but we are experiencing it all live with Vai!

Not only has Vai let his band members shine onstage with him interacting with them, especially the little duals with Dante, but we are also served a taste of the independent talents through their own solos. That's not all! The guitar techs also get a moment to perform as well, and even got down low with Vai between them to entertain us with their slick skills.

Frisellio never failed to impress during the whole set and neither did the tight rhythm section from Colson and Bynoe – who is one badd-ass bassist. Steve Vai shreds like he always has and with Bynoe, Frisello, and Colson, Vai brought the best to Brisbane.

The killer solos and riffage of the most exquisite kind shows us that Vai is still killing it live and holds his place on that throne as one of the best musicians 'Alive in an Ultra World'; or at least our world.

With his personal bag of licks and tricks, he slayed our senses closing out with 'Fire Garden Suite IV - Taurus Bulba'. Vai is majorly shredding – even after two hours of non-stop playing, his technical chops are lit. I wouldn't be surprised if I began experiencing a stigmata of bleeding fingertips as is the connection I am feeling with his music tonight. It's just nuts to watch.

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Image © Clea-marie Thorne

Those deft fingers running tirelessly up and down the fretboard, crossing over, tapping out all in a near-constant state of frenzy. This time leading us to a frenetic-solo climax with a whammy ending for tonight's show. When we answer in the affirmative to Vai's inquiry if we feel good – he simply states "Good. My work here is done."

The 'Inviolate' songs on the set list tonight really highlighted how beautifully crafted the album is – the tracks are different from his older metal and art rock stuff, and the instrumental masterpieces have some big emotions that hit you right in the feels.

Yet the epic guitar solos that we love are not absent, rather this jazz-rock fusion mixing up the new with the old elements of his compositions cements the fact that Vai is a top-notch guitar virtuoso and total rockstar in my books.

The dude not only perfects every song he makes for his albums using modern music tricks and cool visuals to go with them, but he seamlessly brings this altogether for a killer live performance for fans.

Tonight, he lorded the FMH stage like a king in the world of rock guitar. Rest assured, the applause and admiration from punters in the house tonight should reassure him that we will keep him elevated high on that throne for the anticipation of many more shows filled with dreamscape vibes and mind-melting guitar moments to come. Be warned though, it's one hell of a wild ride.

More photos from the show.

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