January 1, 2019 – Going back twenty years, I remember the first “guitar hero” concerts. Joe Satriani got several well-known guitar players together and did a tour. He called it the “G3” tour. “G3” standing for the three guitarists playing the event – Joe, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. Eric Johnson bowed out after the first tour and the next year was replaced by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. This was the first G3 tour I attended. Having never seen Vai but of whom my brother was a big fan, it was an eye (and ear) opening experience. Vai proved himself to be a technically brilliant guitarist who could play pretty much anything. He didn’t exactly strike a nerve with me in the same way Satriani did but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I actually met Vai the next year when my brother took me to see him on my birthday as his gift to me. We attended successive tours and they were essentially the same with both Satriani and Vai playing but with a different guitarist taking the final spot over the years – John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big) and on European tours by Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions) and Michael Schenker (UFO, MSG). Eventually I grew tired of these shows because each guitarist would only play four songs (plus a three or four song jam at the end with all 3 players) and Vai seemed to always play the same songs so I swore off of the G3 tours. Vai, at some point decided to take his own bevy of guitarists on the road and in 2016, he along with Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme) , Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, BLS) and newcomer Tosin Abasi joined forces for what Vai called the “Generation Axe” tour; showcasing each member’s talent. The tour became quite popular and so this year they are doing it again with the same guitarists. I had seen all but Bettencourt and Abasi before but I had attended a new version of G3 earlier this year with Satriani, Petrucci and Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen and it was a fantastic show so I thought “why not?” and decided to see “Gen-Axe” as I now call it. So who put on the best show?
It was a cold Friday night as I made the trip to the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City. This was the former Trump Taj Mahal and it takes up a complete city block; very impressive it was. Making my way to the casino floor on my way to the concert theater, you would never know that this place sat empty for quite a while but the resurgence of Atlantic City was quite evident as patrons were everywhere, enjoying themselves and having a good time. After meeting my brother at the top of the stairs, we made our way to the concert venue. Surprisingly, it was set up for general admission although there was a seated area towards the rear. We got our drinks and sat down and waited for the show to start as we watched the crowd fill in. Promptly at 8:30 the lights came up, the Generation Axe sign hung above all 5 guitarists as they jammed to the opening song –“Hocus Pocus” by Focus. This got the crowd going as all five guitarists contributed solos during the song.
At the conclusion of the 5-man jam, Steve Vai introduced Tosin Abasi and his band – “Animals as Leaders.” This turned out to be the surprise of the evening. I had never really heard this guitarist before. His blend of sweep picking and arpeggiated runs in a very syncopated style on his 8-string guitar was quite amazing. He really was a pleasure to listen to as he and the band ran through the numbers “Tempting Time”, “The Woven Web”, “CAFO” and “Physical Education.”
Next up was Nuno Bettencourt. He came to this country in 1971 from Portugal and played a blend of latin influences aswell as 80s hard rock stylings in his performance. Nuno, as it turns out, is quite a funny guy – telling anecdotes and downplaying his own abilities and at one point making fun of Steve Vai’s “hair fan.” It turns out Steve really does have a fan that blows his hair around at the center of the stage (Nita Strauss uses one too.) If I didn’t think Vai was an egomaniac before, I was sure of it now. Back to Nuno: in between his banter with the audience he did his own version of Extreme’s “Get the Funk Out” which went over well, a nice acoustic version of “Midnight Express” while he joked about not playing “More Than Words” because this was a “guys” show and then playing a medley of Extreme songs that showcased his talent. All in all, he was quite entertaining and one of my favorites of the evening.
Following Nuno Bettencourt was New Jersey’s head of the local chapter of Hell’s Angels – Zakk Wylde. I joke but he easily could have been, in his biker attire. Now, I am not the biggest Zakk Wylde fan for various reasons that I won’t go into here but I have to give him credit – he put on one hell of a show. He played a couple of Black Sabbath covers – “Into the Void” and “War Pigs” before he surprised everyone, including myself by playing an extended version of Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” in which he ventured out into the audience (at one point only a few feet away from me) while he ripped pentatonic speed riffs into oblivion. Joining him at the back of the venue was Steve Vai and then Nuno as they each soloed and then the tree of them soloed together at what became the highlight of the show to me, being a huge Moore fan. It was a fitting and touching tribute to a man who took the Blues to the extreme back in the 1990s and whom various other bluesmen copied with his “Big Band Rock Blues” style. Zakk worked the audience the entire time he played, eventually going around to every part of the venue, making sure the audience got a first-hand experience with him playing right in front of them, which was pretty amazing.
Steve Vai’s’ turn was next, playing a few of his “greatest hits” – “There’s a Fire in the House”, “The Animal” and “For the Love of God” before he and Yngwie played Malmsteens’s “Black Star” together. Next, the whole troupe played Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” together and this came off really well. The parts that were originally sax-guitar-keyboard harmonies were instead played all on guitar in what sounded like Queen at one point. Nuno played drums at his Latin drum stand while he and the drummer played the drum solo. This was quite entertaining as well. I was amazed that with so many egos up there that they could play a song together and it be tight and true to the original and even add something to it.
At the conclusion of “Frankenstein” Vai introduced “Yngwie Fucking Malmsteen.” Out came Yngwie, in all the bombast and excess that is himself, complete with Deep Purple-esque clouds of smoke and thirty Marshall heads sitting on top of six full stacks as he ripped into “Valhalla” and then “Baroque and Roll” (my joke here was going to be “Yngwie goes for Baroque” but the song title pretty much says it all.) Besides playing his own songs including “Far Beyond the Sun” on acoustic he also played compositions by Paganini and Bach. I had seen Yngwie a few times before but I quite enjoyed this performance. Of course, everything with Yngwie is over the top and there are some fans out there who can only take so much of him and I did notice that about a quarter of the audience started leaving during his set. Granted, his audience is older now and maybe they had a long drive home as did I, but I hung in there for his and Vai’s version of “Black Star”. The whole crew then finished up with a very nice instrumental version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – again with some great harmonies duplicating the multi-layered guitars of the original. For the finale’ they covered Deep Purple’s “Burn” – no doubt suggested by Yngwie, with all the guitarists giving the fans a final sendoff by shredding to their hearts’ content. It was a job well done by all.
So how would I rate the guitarists that night from best to worst?
This is a tough one, being that both Zakk and Yngwie are the kings of repetitious soloing I would still have to give Zakk the nod. Though he was entertaining and did a great job working the crowd, he is still limited in his repertoire and I for one, got tired of the same scalular runs and of bending the same notes the majority of the times I’ve heard him. His usual overzealous use of pinch harmonics that he is known for was strangely absent this time, though. Perhaps he has been reading people’s reviews of his playing though honestly I doubt he would really care.
Steve Vai – Steve is a great player and I give him credit for putting this show together but he still plays the exact same songs in these shows that he did twenty years ago. He is immensely talented but really, all of the players in this show were. I was hoping he would do something that blew me away but he didn’t. I kept thinking: “hasn’t Steve come out with any new music in the last twenty years?” I was going to rank him third but because of his song selection I place him here.
Yngwie Malmsteen – Yngwie is unique; there is no doubt about it. No one can play classically influenced riffs like he does. He pretty much invented the sub-genre of Bach Rock. The problem is he is repetitious as hell. To me, if you have his first two albums you can ignore the rest of them because he hasn’t done anything differently since. That being said, he was the best showman of the group and I enjoyed his performance very much. Towards the end it became a bit much but I think Yngwie follows Mick Jagger’s mantra that “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
Nuno Bettencourt – From a sheer entertainment standpoint, Nuno was the best – hands down. Not only was he entertaining, self-effacing and funny, he played brilliantly as well. His songs were up-tempo, rocked hard and his solos mind-blowing. He proved you don’t have to have a huge ego to play brilliant guitar. I’ve heard he plays piano too and that would have been interesting to see/hear. Maybe it’s the freshness of never having seen him before but still, he laid down the chops and was entertaining to boot – a great job.
Tosin Asabi and Animals as Leaders. This is a surprise to all of you, I’m sure. This guy can shred with the best of them but his rhythmic, syncopated style along with his stellar playing made he and his band my favorites for the evening. I am going to have to locate some of his band’s music and give it a listen because I really liked them. He reminded me a little of Satriani with his other-worldly style of playing but he is a player in his own right and the extra strings on his guitar give him a voice the other guitarists don’t have. Check them out!
In conclusion: As great as these players are, I can’t help but wonder who the next generation of guitar players are. The “guitar hero” thing seems to be dying off, which is a shame because these players did a lot to promote and invigorate the world of electric guitar. As young players we were always listening to guitar music and it seemed like there was always a new, hot player every time a new band would surface. As Hard Rock and Metal became less popular in the 90s, the focus on the guitar became lessened. Songs with guitar solos in them suddenly became “uncool” which I never really understood. Granted, you didn’t need an explosive, over-the-top guitar solo to make a statement, just something short and perhaps melodic that fit the song but it seemed like the guitar solo almost became blacklisted or taboo. Then, about five years ago, I started seeing all of these young players on YouTube; some in their early teens, emulating guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and doing a very good job of it. Kids know what is inherently good; they sense it and so if these young players are being influenced by the earlier generation that bodes well for guitar music, doesn’t it? I’m hoping that Greta Van Fleet’s guitarist Jake Kiszka, with his Gibson SGs and Marshall amps, invigorates Rock enough that younger players will look up to him and rediscover the joy of playing the instrument without having to be a technical wizard to make good music. Jake is solid, seems to have a bevy of licks for someone so young and doesn’t repeat himself. He also thrives in the context of a band instead of making his playing all about him. Hopefully, several years from now I can attend a show of newer guitar stars. I wonder what they’ll call it?