– Words by Jordan Buford / Photos by James Villa –
The Bomb Factory / Dallas, TX (Sunday, April 17th, 2016)
Music and guitar enthusiasts were ecstatic when Generation Axe was announced a few months ago, a project/tour masterminded by Steve Vai that featured five guitar virtuosos (including Vai). That’s something almost unprecedented, that many skilled axe slingers all sharing the same stage in one night; and Dallas fans came out in droves to witness the spectacle when it came to town.
The diverse cast of musicians attracted an equally diverse crowd, each guitarist having their own fan base out this night. Patrons both young and old packed out The Bomb Factory, having the venue nearly at capacity; a large chunk of the floor that is typically standing room only having been outfitted with chairs this night.
As people took their seats, excitement in the first few rows wasn’t so much focused on what would soon transpire on stage but rather who was out in the audience, as Andy Timmons was in attendance. It didn’t take long for people to realize who he was and he was kind enough to pose for a few selfies with fans, while others were amazed he wasn’t a part of Generation Axe.
It was a little after 8:30 when the show was set into motion, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Tosin Abasi all lining the stage (from left to right), as they ripped through their first number (a cover of Boston’s “Foreplay”), each showing off their extremely different styles. Malmsteen easily got much of the attention, as he wasted no time in doing some tricks, removing his guitar and spinning it in the air.
Once it was done, they all dispersed, Vai sticking around just long enough to introduce the youngest of the five musicians, Abasi.
Known from Animals as Leaders, it was those songs that he played (the backing band even included their drummer, Matt Garstka), “Air Chrysalis” and “The Woven Web” being a few of the songs he was able to do. He was well aware he was in front of many people that were seeing and hearing him for the first time, an almost shy smile creeping across his face as he introduced himself, also pointing to his name that was displayed on the massive video board at the back of the stage.
It didn’t take long to realize this was not only a show highlighting some extraordinary guitarists but also the array of styles each specialized in. For Abasi and his progressive metal sound, it was tapping that he excelled at, his rapid yet slick manner of playing making it appear as if anyone could learn the technique with ease.
He was the only guitarist that did anything remotely like that this night. Bettencourt even praised him, the second act of the night joining Abasi for his final song before taking the reins.
Bettencourt applauded him, saying he was doing cutting edge stuff. “Where is the downbeat?!” he said was his first thought after finding out he would have to follow Abasi, though he promised listeners they’d know just where it was with his songs.
You could say he has more of a standard style of playing, though there was a ferocity about him that the stage had lacked thus far; Bettencourt slinging his head around during the final moments of “Get the Funk Out”.
Most of what he did came from Extreme’s discography, including what he said was one of the only instrumental songs he had ever written, since he’s always had a band around him. He was referring to “Midnight Express”, the track requiring a stool and an acoustic guitar, and while it was the most restrained moment of the night, it was still every bit as powerful as the most aggressive songs.
He was also in the running for being the most talkative, that being another variation with the styles: how the musicians approached the frontman role. He noted the reason why the show was running late was because the truck carrying their gear had jackknifed the day before, though fortunately the driver was okay as was their gear, and they were able to get it here instead of having to cancel. He also earned some laughs when he remarked he was asking Vai how this tour was going to work payment wise, what with the egos and everything. He said Vai’s reply was he had worked out a deal with the promoter where they would be paid by the note. “…There’s gonna be a billion notes played here tonight!” he quipped, which may not have been much of an exaggeration.
His highlight was easily a medley. It was an idea he said he had gotten from Youtube after having stumbled across a fan made video that consisted of what that person thought were all of Bettencourt’s best parts and solos. Bettencourt in turn made his own best of medley, knocking out a slew of sensational riffs in what was one epic piece.
The transitions between acts was neat, and kept things flowing smoothly. Like when Wylde appeared with Bettencourt , the two performing and co-singing a retooled version of Citizen Cope’s “Sideways”.
It was clear Wylde was one of the primary reasons some had even come out this night, many patrons sporting their Black Label Society jackets or shirts, but this time around, this was the Dallas chapter of the all mighty Generation Axe.
Aside from Bettencourt, he was the only other act that sang this night, though there was no shortage of shredding during his lengthy set that began with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.”.
The audience was more fervent than they had been thus far, cheering and applauding nearly everything Wylde did. Not that he didn’t deserve it. I mean, not every guitarist plays their axe while holding it behind their head or picks the strings with their teeth, all of which happened in the span of one song. Still, it was the solos where he was most in the zone, never even needing to look at his guitar, just feeling the music while he banged his head along to it.
The pinnacle of his set came when he stepped down from the stage using a box that was in the pit, then made his way out amongst the area where the chairs were. He was tearing it up the entire time, more just strolling down the aisles, though one guy I saw was lucky enough to get a fist bump from Wylde, and it appeared to leave the man in complete disbelief.
Wylde destroyed it, setting the bar and one that under normal circumstances would have been impossible to top. But then came who he introduced as being the greatest Viking that has ever lived.
Malmsteen was a machine, giving it his all during a top-notch performance. He constantly wanted to dazzle, repeating that move from earlier of removing the guitar and spinning it in the air. Other times he launched it into the air, grabbing it by the body once it fell back closer to him.
Mixed in with his neoclassical metal songs was a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, something the crowd enjoyed hearing, though it was his originals that kept everyone captivated. Even after having been around a few decades they still sound incredible fresh, being unlike just about anything else that’s out there.
It appeared as if Malmsteen’s set was done when he was seen breaking each of the strings on his guitar, one by one. He instead traded it in for another one from his collection, continuing the assault that pushed that bar I mentioned earlier to new heights.
Steve Vai would have his work cut out for him.
Vai was arguably the most fun out of the bunch, first joining Malmsteen for “Black Star”, before getting the spotlight to himself.
He didn’t need to speak a word, instead letting his axe do the talking for him. I mean that in a different regard from the other musicians. Vai got the entire crowd to begin chanting, “HEY!”, simply by playing a few notes and thrusting his hand in the air. Later, everyone was mimicking the sounds he was making with the guitar, the spectators following along as if it were instinct compelling them.
All the while Vai was vibing off what he was doing just as much as the crowd was, often conducting his movements to what he was doing, like making some faces each when the notes he was playing got higher and higher. It didn’t take long to see why he’s a living legend and a guitarist all others can learn from in some sort of fashion.
“Tender Surrender” and “Gravity Storm” were some favorites; and for “Building the Church”, he brought Abasi back out to help him.
Gradually, the members of Generation Axe began reclaiming the stage, Bettencourt and Wylde coming back out to help with “Frankenstein”, originally done by The Edgar Winter Group. With one song left, Malmsteen then came back out, not only playing the guitar but also handling the lead vocals for the Deep Purple classic “Highway Star”, which was an excellent way to conclude this three plus hour long show.
Going into this night, I was curious to see the show, though I had no intention of seeing it all the way though. I’ve never cared for instrumental music, having seen a few instrumental acts before and was board out of my mind while watching them. That’s just my personal preference: songs with lyrics are much more engaging to me.
But then I wound up staying for the entire thing, which didn’t seem like it was even close to more than three hours in length.
The fact that it was broken up into different segments (really seven of them in all) helped the time pass quickly. And while none of them had any trouble finding their stride almost as soon as they stepped out onto the stage, it still appeared as if each of them were just merely beginning to flex their muscle when it was time to move on.
Vai, Wylde, Malmsteen, Bettencourt, and Abasi were all riveting to watch in their own way, each possessing a certain amount of charisma; the waves of different genres also going a long way in helping it feel like a new experience every twenty to thirty minutes or so. It made me realize it’s not necessarily instrumental music that I have a distaste for, but rather instrumental music done in a mundane way, a word that certainly didn’t apply this night.
The rhythm section also deserves some serious props. The drummer and bassist may not have been the reason people showed up to the event, though they were integral to it, bolstering the powerhouse performance the leading musicians gave. The two were even crucial parts of the first three acts sets, before hanging more in the shadows while Vai and Malmsteen had the stage.
Generation Axe was a shred fest from start to finish, spotlighting not only some of the best guitarists in the field, but also the guitar itself, reminding attendees just what a versatile instrument it is, capable of making more sounds than a lot of people are even aware of.
I’d go see it again in a heartbeat; and who knows, maybe Generation Axe will even become an annual tour. After all, there are many other musicians with a mastery over the guitar that could be spotlighted.