On December 6 & 7, 2001 Grammy Award-winning guitarist Steve Vai headlined two shows at London's famed Astoria. The cameras were there to capture the experience, and now that concert is available as a 2-disc DVD set!
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English PCM Stereo
Runtime: 141 min.
Release Date: 12/9/2003
• Commentary with Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, Dave Weiner and Billy Sheehan
• Behind the Scenes Featurettes
• Band Biographies
• Vai Discography
• Los Angeles Rehearsals
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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Steve Vai: Live At The Astoria London (2001)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 12, 2003)
If not for my college roommate Mike, I don’t know if I ever would have heard of Steve Vai. Mike and I met at the start of our second year of school in 1986, and we went to see David Lee Roth about a month later. I didn’t like Roth then or now, but the car-less Mike offered to pay for my ticket if I drove. I love live shows under almost any circumstances, so I figured this was too good a deal to skip.
My abiding memory of that concert stems from the ridiculous loudness; my ears rang for days after the show. Mike’s did too, but he got something else from it: an introduction to Vai, then Roth’s guitarist. A few things served to intensify the connection the following year. We got another member of the apartment, and like Mike, Don was a guitar player and fanatic. The faster the playing the better in their book, and they developed a greater interest in Vai’s work.
One key component in their education came from the 1986 flick Crossroads. Not the modern Britney effort, this one starred Ralph Macchio as an aspiring blues guitarist who seeks an aging six-string legend to further his education. Ralph discovers the old man sold his soul to the devil decades earlier, so he challenges Satan to a guitar duel to reclaim that entity.
You get no points if you guess who portrayed the Devil’s guitarist. That’s right: Vai, who appeared during the film’s climactic duel. Vai let loose with his signature “eight trillion notes a second” style, and this delighted Mike and Don to no end. Especially Don, who made it a virtually weekly habit of renting that damned movie. Sometimes he insisted we watch the whole thing, but usually he just fast-forwarded to the Vai bit. I don’t know how many times we viewed that guitar battle, but 100 probably is a low estimate.
After college, I stayed closer to Mike than to Don, and through him I continued to get periodic Vai exposure. The whole lot of us took in another Roth show in 1988, and Mike and I went with his then-wife to a Vai solo concert in 1996. Mike and I saw one more show in 1999, and I also took in a recent performance in conjunction with this DVD release.
Between the Roth and solo shows, I’ve seen Vai five times over the last 17 years. That’s not a lot for me, given that there are some acts I’ve seen 50+ times, but when one considers that I don’t particularly care for Vai’s music, it’s a pretty high total.
So if I don’t like Vai’s music, why am I writing this review? Call it a favor for a friend. As part of that, I promised Mike I’d be nice, and I think that’s fair. It would seem rather mean-spirited of me to seek out the Vai DVD just so I could attack it, so I’ll keep my comments gentle.
Don’t construe this to mean that I hate Vai. If I did, it’d be awfully masochistic of me to continue to subject myself to his work. There are parts of Vai’s material that I do respect, as he clearly enjoys a nearly unparalleled ability to manipulate a guitar, and the speed with which he plays seems dazzling. It’s a question of what I like to hear done with guitars, and I’m a “less is more” guy who prefers economical solos, not ones that include every possible note performed at lightning speed.
But I’ve been friends with Mike and Don long enough to know that this form of guitar work clearly enjoys its partisans, and they simply adore this stuff. So guys, this one’s for you!
Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London presents selections from two concerts. Filmed on December 6 and 7, 2001, the program melds the shows seamlessly. Occasionally it became clear from which performance a song came – such as when Vai mentioned something about “last night” – but usually this didn’t seem obvious, and the editing combined the bits smoothly.
Astoria features 21 numbers, though some stretch acceptance as “songs”; “Dave’s Party Piece” and “Tony’s Solo” exist as little more than basic individual jams without much real structure. Vai opens up his stage to his bandmates frequently and lets them shine on their own. The group includes Vai’s old buddy from the Roth days, bassist Billy Sheehan, as well as guitarist/keyboardist Tony MacAlpine, a successful musician in his own right. They as well as guitarist Dave Weiner and drummer Virgil Donati get many opportunities to take the spotlight.
But make no mistake: it remains Vai’s stage, and he’s the one the crowd wants to see. That means that the focus mostly stays on the star, and he delivers what the folks want to hear. Only a smattering of the 21 tracks include vocals, as most focus on the instrumental work. Given my preferences for songs over solos, unsurprisingly I preferred the more traditionally structured numbers. Easily the best songs in the set, the two Hendrix tracks – “Fire” and “Little Wing” – offered the show’s highlights for me. It seemed interesting to see Vai take on a pair of numbers from the most influential rock guitarist of all-time, and though these explorations stuck a little too close to the originals, they provided some nice moments.
For the most part, the show stayed with instrumentals that showcased Vai’s lightning-fingered style of playing. Not every track featured Vai at full tilt; a few songs largely kept things more basic, as Vai actually explored the positives behind restraint. However, that kind of number remained in the minority, as most songs showed Vai at his rapid-fire best.
For me, this meant that the music all started to blend together after a while. The occasional track stood out, but most of them sounded a lot alike. I think the show’s simply too long for this sort of material. When I saw Vai recently, he appeared as part of G3, a concert that included solo performances from Vai as well as two other notable guitarists. This meant he played a much shorter set than normal, and to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it. With a limited amount of stage time, ennui failed to set in, and the music stayed much fresher.
But one must remember that I’m not the target audience for this program, and folks who adore Vai will definitely not like my “less is more” belief. For them, the nearly two and a half hours of Vai probably will seem like too little.
Obviously not a big-budget production, Astoria presented the concert in a serviceable manner that usually served the concert well, though it adopted way too many cheesy gimmicks. At times it looked like something some of Steve’s pals shot with their camcorders. That didn’t mean that the quality was poor; actually, I felt Astoria offered much stronger visuals than some major efforts from artists like Madonna or U2. Some poor camerawork affected things, as focus occasionally became a problem, but
However, the production choices often became tacky. I saw silly rapid camera zooms in and out plus intentionally and pointlessly odd angles. Cuts occasionally used goofy spinning images to dissolve rather than just transition normally. At one point, when the image showed a good-looking woman, they actually superimposed “U.R.A.Q.T.” on the screen! According to the commentary, Vai himself did a lot of this work, and he allowed himself too many of these dopey moves.
Nonetheless, these excesses never really dominated, and Astoria usually depicted the event fairly well. Fans will be happy to see the many close-ups on Vai’s fingering, and the DVD gave us a good feel for the concert. It would have been much better without the gimmicks, but it still worked reasonably nicely.
17 years after my first exposure to Steve Vai, I still don’t consider myself a fan of his work, despite repeated attempts by my friends to convert me. Nonetheless, I can understand his appeal, and Live at the Astoria London offered a good showcase for his talents. The DVD presented a long performance that covered most of the guitarist’s bases. (The absence of “Head Cuttin’ Duel” from Crossroads - which Vai has done live in the past – irked me, though.)
The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B+/ Bonus B
Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not an excellent concert presentation, the picture seemed generally positive.
Sharpness offered few concerns. Occasionally some of the wider shots came across as a bit soft and blurry. In particular, full stage angles lacked definition. However, most of the program stayed with close and medium shots, and those looked reasonably detailed and concise. Although they often plague this sort of piece, I noticed no problems with jagged edges or shimmering; guitar strings frequently cause havoc in both realms, but those issues failed to materialize. I also saw no edge enhancement or signs of source flaws. The image lacked any noise or video artifacting.
Colors mostly came from the lighting, and those areas generally seemed fine. Sometimes the lights overwhelmed the players to a minor degree, but not to a terribly significant level. I felt the hues seemed slightly heavy at times, but the DVD mostly replicated them with reasonable accuracy. Black levels were fairly tight, though occasionally they looked a little inky. Shadow detail held up quite well through all of this. The lighting scheme didn’t make the stage terribly bright, so the musicians often played in moderate darkness. They still were easily visible and distinctive in the low-light shots. Astoria won’t win any prizes for its picture, but it appeared pretty solid nonetheless.
While not strictly a picture issue, I thought this was the best place to mention one major misstep in Astoria: the layer change. This came right in the middle of “Down Deep Into the Pain”, which made it rather jarring. Why not put it in a natural location between songs? I can’t recall ever having seen a layer change placed mid-track, and it caused unnecessary irritation.
Fans of aggressive audio will enjoy the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Steve Vai: Live at the Astoria London. To be sure, it made more active use of the surrounds than most concert presentations. For some, the rear speakers will prove too active, as they presented a fair amount of music. Many folks prefer that concert programs replicate the live experience, which means music strictly from the front. Astoria definitely didn’t hew to that concept, as it used all five channels to present the songs.
For the most part, it did so unobtrusively. The utilization of the surrounds rarely felt gimmicky or too broad. The music stayed mostly focused on the front, where it offered nice stereo imaging. Vocals mainly remained in the center, and the sides featured good delineation of the guitars and other instrumental elements.
While the surrounds did play an active role, they didn’t constantly present unique audio. Those elements appeared for some of the wilder numbers like “Bad Horsie”, which featured spastically flailing guitar all around the spectrum. However, those examples didn’t happen as often as one might expect, though they did become more prevalent as the show progressed. Instead, the rear channels mainly supported the elements as guitars and other bits engulfed us. This was a tricky proposition, as it could have come across as nothing more than sloppy “bleed through”, and that indeed did occur on a couple of occasions. Periodically the use of the surrounds made the elements seem a bit ill located. However, that didn’t happen much. The level of surround activity varied; sometimes the rears went nuts, whereas other segments used them much more sparingly. In any case, the track blended the five speakers well and mostly provided a smooth and enveloping experience.
In addition, audio quality remained pretty good, with one notable caveat: bass response. While low-end material definitely appeared, those parts took too much of a back seat to the rest. The track felt slightly thin and tepid at times, and more forceful bass would have given the audio greater impact. I wouldn’t call the low-end elements deficient, but they failed to make a strong presence for the most part.
Otherwise I felt that Astoria sounded great. Most importantly, guitars came through swimmingly. They buzzed, chimed, snarled and growled with excellent clarity and definition. Other instruments also sounded concise and detailed, though guitars were obviously the most prominent element of the track. Though infrequent in this instrumental showcase, vocals also sounded fairly natural and distinctive; a little edginess appeared during tracks like “Chameleon”, but this failed to become too intrusive. Astoria almost made it to “A” level for its audio, but the moderately lackluster bass response knocked down my grade to a still positive “B+”.
For Vai’s second DVD release, Astoria pulls out some stops in regard to its extras. Most of these show up on the second disc, but we do get an audio commentary on the first platter. This piece includes remarks from Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Dave Weiner, and guitarist/keyboardist Tony MacAlpine. All four men sit together for their running, concert-specific discussion. In a nice touch, the track places Vai and Sheehan in the right speaker with MacAlpine and Weiner in the left, so it always remains easy to tell who’s talking.
This may cause an imbalance between the two channels, though, as Vai and Sheehan heavily dominate the proceedings. That fact comes as little surprise, and overall, they offer a loose but generally likable chat. When I call it “loose”, I mean it. Clearly no editing occurred here, as we hear the session from start to finish with no pauses. We even listen in while Vai takes phone calls and someone brings snacks into the room!
As for actual information, they go into a mix of topics. Many of these focus on the songs, their origins, and various facets of the numbers. We get technical information about the playing and the construction of the DVD as well as anecdotes from the road. Vai includes a few tales from his days with David Lee Roth and Frank Zappa, among other stories. He even chats a little about Crossroads, which makes me happy! Possibly the most informal commentary I’ve heard, things degenerate at times and become a little too casual, and a few too many empty spots appear. Nonetheless, the track remains fairly engaging, and it gives the listener a nice “fly on the wall” feeling.
Now we move to DVD Two, where we When we go to DVD Two, most of the bonus features appear in a domain cleverly titled Bonus Features. This presents 10 mini-programs that can be viewed individually or together via the “Play All” option. Through that method, the pieces total 45 minutes and 22 seconds.
These featurettes cover a variety of subjects. We start with the longest one, a tour conducted by guitarist Dave Weiner. In this 16-minute and 24-second piece, he shows us some of the instruments, clothes, and the backstage area. Amusingly, he demonstrates how Vai behaves when he gets angry. “Billy’s Tofu Jack Russell Terrier” presents a tour anecdote from the bassist. “Steve’s Needs” offers a quick comedic attempt to mock the guitarist’s onstage demands. ”Billy’s Bass Lesson” puts the emphasis on Sheehan, as it gives us a comedic skit in which the bassist pretends he can’t play and needs help. “Needs” is fast enough to be sort of funny, but “Lesson” goes on forever and pursues the same lame joke, so it doesn’t work.
For something more straightforward, “Soundcheck” gives us about two and a half minutes of that session. Also simple, “Thomas Nordegg Interview” offers a short chat with Vai’s guitar tech. He talks about his career and his job in this low-key but informative session. “Thomas’s Guitar Lesson” functions ala the Sheehan gag earlier; here Vai pretends he can’t play so Nordegg can correct him. Folks, that joke ain’t getting any funnier! “Los Angeles Rehearsals” goes back to the opening of the tour in 2001, and we see about 11 minutes of the practices. “Los Angeles Rehearsals: Giant Balls of Gold” and “Erotic Nightmares” exist as separate chapters, but they continue what the prior one starts. Overall, some good material appears in these featurettes, though some of it feels like filler.
A few minor extras round out the package. Biography provides entries for Vai and the other four members of his band. These give us basic career highlights, with an emphasis on praise. Discography relates all of the albums on which Vai played. It’s fun to see, mostly for the surprises: The Songs of West Side Story? Radio Disney Kid Jams?
Steve Vai’s style of music won’t be for everyone, but he definitely enjoys a devoted audience of guitar freaks. Live at the Astoria London presents a typical Vai concert and offers a broad representation of his style. The DVD features above average picture and audio plus a generally interesting selection of supplements. I don’t know if Astoria will win Vai any new fans, but it should definitely satisfy his partisans.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4285 Stars|| Number of Votes: 42|