What happened when Steve Vai and Brian May reigned in Spain

Steve Vai

“I’ll see you back at the hotel,” says a smiling Steve Vai, adjusting his Harley Davidson cap and glancing up from from a motorbike magazine, and then taking another look in the direction of the baggage carousel.

An hour or so after leaving them at Spain’s Seville airport, the Vai entourage arrives at the Tryp Colon Hotel, where earlier arrivals - including Neil Murray, Cozy Powell, Joe Satriani and yours truly - mill around in the baggage-strewn disarray of the lobby. The Vai camp’s smiles have been replaced by pensive expressions; their moods vary between deeply concerned and severely pissed-off. A sombre-faced Vai, fingers nervously stroking his chin, explains that his guitars have failed to come off the aeroplane - lost in transit. He is not very happy. As he stands contemplating the pile of luggage that is two guitar-shaped pieces short, his patience is tested further when he hears that the hotel has problems and that he and his party don’t have rooms. His PR is furious. People take an edgy pace backwards, expecting her to explode and turn the warm Spanish night air blue. Instead, the potential bomb is defused by a sudden cheer as a driver appears carrying a brace of guitar cases, to be met by a very audible sigh of relief from Vai. (The no rooms situation is - for now - defused.)

“Oh well, there goes a good story,” I say to Vai, with a sulk.

“Never mind, you can always blow it up a bit,” he grins. “I don’t mind if you say they were lost for a couple of days and that I went on a rampage, smashing up the hotel! Will that help?” he quips, sympathetic of my ‘loss’.

The driver’s explanation is that the baggage handler at the airport is fond of a drink, and, thinking that the guitar cases looked like they might contain guns, had pulled them in for inspection. Which is a little surprising considering that guitar cases have been flying into Seville almost by the plane load for the past week, as this beautiful, historic city hosts the five-night ‘Guitar Legends’ extravaganza!

Intended to celebrate the history of the instrument as much as the achievements of the musicians who have helped to define it, the Guitar Legends festival features 30 or so of the most influential guitarists of the past 40 years, to be broadcast to over 40 countries around the world. Five nightly concerts showcasing the varied talents of players ranging from from the man who first electrified the guitar, Les Paul, through blues greats like B.B. King and Albert Collins and the flamenco of Paco de Lucia, with the final night devoted to Rock.

With a band that includes rhythm sections of Neil Murray / Cozy Powell and Nathan East / Steve Ferrone (the latter pair from Eric Clapton’s band), and spotlighting Queen’s Brian May, Joe Walsh and the state-of-the-art virtuosity of Joe Satriani, Nuno Bettencourt and Steve Vai, the Rock night promises to be quite a show and quite an event.

Sitting in the hotel bar which over the past week has quenched the thirst of some of the biggest names in the history of the electric guitar, Joe Satriani looks around at the company in which he finds himself at this late, boozy hour (Joe, however, is on mineral water), and allows himself a chuckle.

“It feels like someone must have thought, ‘What can we do for Joe Satriani that would make him feel really great? I know! Let’s let him play with all these really great guitarists that he always wanted to hang out with!’

“The organizers contacted me about doing this nine months or so ago,” he continues. “I looked at the names they had down that they were approaching to do it and saw Les Paul, B.B. King, Jimmy Page… all these great people. And there was my name on it! I remember saying to my manager, ‘Are they sure they want me to play this!?’ So I said yeah, of course I’m going to do it. When someone asks me if I’d like to play with Brian May, I say ‘Yes! Any time, anywhere, let’s go!’ Certainly when I was buying my Queen records I never ever thought the time would come when I’d be able to stand next to Brian May and play. It’s just one of the things I’ll remember for ever.”

What will probably be remembered for ever by the music fans of Seville (not a town on most bands’ tour schedule), is the week-long comings and goings of guitar heroes at the Tryp Colon Hotel. It’s like a dream come true as they mount a 24-hour vigil outside.

On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, the majority of tonight’s line-up file out of the hotel and board the bus amid a barrage of camera flashes and a sea of outstretched, autograph-hungry hands. As Satriani and Vai emerge from the revolving doors the volume of noise increases dramatically as squeals and shrieks of delight are suddenly added to the clapping and incomprehensible shouts. As the pair of star guitar-slingers take their seats, the expressions of those fans directly on the outside of the bus change from excitement to disbelief as they find themselves separated from their heroes by no more than the thickness of a piece of glass… Five minutes later the bus swings into a complex of futuristic, mostly half-finished buildings that will house next year’s Expo ‘92, and pulls up at the brand new and spectacular La Cartuja Auditorium, its white marble and concrete structure gleaming in the sunlight.

While the ‘band’ run through the final rehearsals of the songs for which he isn’t needed, Steve Vai sits in his dressing room and tries to project his mind forward five hours, when, along with the others, he has to live up to the reputation of being a Guitar Legend in front of the largest audience (albeit a TV audience) of his career.

“Sometimes,” he ponders, “playing for me is torturous, because inspiration is just one of those things you can’t demand and then have. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. And the inspiration for a show like this - or for a live show in general - depends on a lot of things, like the sound, how the audience is reacting or whatever. But I think the idea of this show is great.

“When they originally asked me, I was working on the Bill And Ted film soundtrack, and didn’t know what I was going to be doing. And it just sounded like a ‘spoof’ thing: ‘Yeah, we’ve got these people, and it’s gonna be broadcast…’ So I blew it off. But they came back to me many times, and finally I thought about it seriously and thought it might be an interesting thing to do.

“I’m usually very stand-off-ish about playing with a lot of guitar players. But this particular event turned my head around a lot about that, because I’m playing with some very accomplished musicians, and guitarists in particular, like Joe Satriani and Brian May. We’ve worked some great stuff out and it generally sounds fabulous! You know, I never thought I’d be able to hear Liberty with three screaming guitars - and all playing the right notes!”

I suggest that Liberty sounds almost tailor made for Brian May’s style of playing, and that the song is actually very Queen-like.

“It’s very Queen-like,” he agrees. “And maybe that’s because Brian was a big influence on me when I was young. A major influence! Every time I look at him during this whole thing I just see a hero! It’s strange how I look at him and it still goes beyond seeing a normal person! But you can’t avoid it. In your mind, some people meant so much to you at such an important part of your life that they become ‘heroes’. Guys like him, Page, Hendrix and whatever, they pulled me through my adolescence.

“But I wouldn’t just get on stage with anybody - for their benefit and mine, y’know!? I’m really not a ‘jammer’. And these kind of things have a habit of turning into a complete mess and be embarrassing for everybody. And I’m very conscious of that, not so much for myself but for the kids who are watching it. They get this ‘hero’ element in their head, and then it’s just blown to pieces because the chemistry of the musicians doesn’t match. But this is all really seasoned professionals, and it’s going really smoothly.”

It might be reasonable to expect that something like event would bring out the competitive element in the principal players, with each of them trying to blow each other off stage. And because of their styles of playing, Vai and Satriani would seem to many to be the most obvious combatants if something of a Clash Of The Titans situation did develop. But fortunately, other - more powerful - reasons conspire to also make them the least likely ones.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, okay?” says Vai. “I can’t speak for the other guys, but I’ve known Joe all my life and I’ve never consciously competed, because I’ve always put him above everybody, because he was my teacher and because I respect him. I love hearing him play one note. I can listen to him play one note and it reminds me of when I was a kid taking lessons and all the great musical experiences I had with him playing. So I don’t really view it like that, although me and him are in the prime position to be competitive. And Joe’s not that way.

“Everyone is competing with themselves, as always, to do the best they can. But everybody’s also compassionately leaning on each other, which is very nice at certain moments. But before I got here I felt that competitive bug in my personality rear its ugly head. I said: ‘I gotta make sure I keep up with these guys, I want to do great…’ But now I’m here, I have a very good feeling from all the other guys about this thing.”

For Vai, of course, it’s also a different - and rather weird - situation to that of the others: Whereas the other guitarists have toured their songs and played them countless times, this is the first time Vai will have played any of his Passion And Warfare songs live. But having heard what it sounds like and felt what it feels like - even playing with ‘strangers’ and just in rehearsal - he’s suddenly lumbered with the knowledge that the decision not to tour was a big mistake.

“I was always under the impression that the music on Passion And Warfare might be a little too complicated to bring out on the road with a band,” he confesses, for a moment looking a little sad. “But I went into rehearsals and these guys blew through Greasy Kid’s Stuff and…! It was the first time I’d played any of my solo material ever with a band, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I missed my calling on that record. I really should have toured it’. I mean, to play The Animal live, with that sound at the back of you, is one of the most erotic audible experiences - for me at least. I wouldn’t tour it now - it’s too late. But I will probably perform those songs with a band in the future.”

The immediate future for Vai, however, is to get back to producing an album for hot-shot half-pint Thomas McRocklin’s band - perhaps a star of a future Guitar Legends - after which he has to think about coming up with something to follow last year’s remarkable Passion And Warfare.

“At this point in my career, I don’t wanna spend 10 months in the studio making a record and then touring for 15 months, having a long break and then starting over again. I wanna get in there, hit it, get out on the road and do that again and again. I want to try to release a lot of music within the next 10 years, and that’s basically what I’m aiming towards. But I’m not gonna play one type of music for the rest of my life, and most people don’t know what to expect from me - and that’s the way I like to keep it. But I believe my next record - probably late next year - will be very rock ‘n’ roll.”

To get back to the reason we’re both here - Guitar Legends, one can’t help but notice how certain players are conspicuously absent from the Rock night: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Gary Moore… The list of those who for one reason or another couldn’t or wouldn’t make it is as impressive as it is disappointing.

Vai agrees: “It would have been nice if the show could have been longer, and guys like Steve Morse and Eric Johnson could have done a few songs. And of course Beck, Page, Clapton… That would have been wonderful. And if this show sets a good example, maybe those guys will do it some time.”

Satriani had also pointed to Beck - among others - as one of the glaring omissions: “Jeff Beck should have come,” says Satriani, obviously disappointed, “and he should have played Where Were You and it would have just devastated everybody. It devastates me every time I hear it. And if there was ever a place for him to do it, this was the place. I really wish Jimmy Page was here. I wish Eric Clapton, Allan Holdsworth and Johnny Winter were here… They’re the living ones. Obviously we’re missing Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But I mean, when you sit down and think about it there are just so many people not here. It starts to make me feel a little guilty!

With only half-an-hour to go before he’s due to start tonight’s proceedings with Satch Boogie, as a flamenco guitar primes the small (2,000 capacity) but highly enthusiastic audience before the star line-up takes the stage, Joe Satriani goes through his shape-throwing routine for the benefit of Palmer’s cameras. “This is the Steve Vai pose!” he quips, giving it some serious forward thrust with the shoulders.

Steve Vai, meanwhile (assisted by ever-attentive wife Pia) squeezes into his specially-made-for-the-event stage threads. A natty little number in black leather (with strategic, tattoo-revealing ‘windows’), chrome studs and enough light-catching crystal pendants to make a sizeable chandelier, the outfit cost a disclosed but unrepeatable bundle. But at this level, showmanship is as much a part of the deal as musicianship - the threads, the moves… And if you’ve got it, baby…!

“To be honest - and this sounds cliched, when I play, the music just moves me and I feel like I have to move. Here, I’m being very reserved to a degree, because I don’t wanna do an ‘extravaganza’, y’know. I wanna blend in. But when I’m playing my material, all the excitement is within, because I have a lot of ‘pedalling’ to do, and a lot of thinking to do. But I grunt like a madman when I play this stuff! I know that because I have a horrible sore throat afterwards! But when you’re on a stage with Whitesnake or David Lee Roth, the wings are the limit, y’know!?”

He checks himself in the mirror, throws a rogue lock of hair back over his shoulder and, with an exaggerated flick of a pendant, beams a semi-self-conscious smile: “It’s… showtime!!”

…“Laideeeez and gentlemen!” announces Brian May, battling against a deafening standing ovation as he is picked out by a battery of spotlights.

“It’s amazing,” says Satriani, making his way to the stage. “You pull into town for one of these events, and you’re all consumed with interviews, photos and rehearsals, and you miss most of what it’s about. Afterwards, people ask you: ‘What was it like being there with all those things going on?’ And you haven’t even seen it!”

Steve Vai: the 10 Records That Changed My Life

Paul Henderson

Classic Rock’s production editor for the past 22 years, ‘resting’ bass player Paul has been writing for magazines and newspapers, mainly about music, since the mid-80s, contributing to titles including Q, The Times, Music Week, Prog, Billboard, Metal Hammer, Kerrang! and International Musician. He has also written questions for several BBC TV quiz shows. Of the many people he’s interviewed, his favourite interviewee is former Led Zep manager Peter Grant. If you ever want to talk the night away about Ginger Baker, in particular the sound of his drums (“That fourteen-inch Leedy snare, man!”, etc, etc), he’s your man.