Steve Vai
Breaking my nightly Downton Abbey couch-potato addiction, I spent four evenings grooving at the Newport last week. I could've been immersed in a world of post-Victorian 1 percenters upstairs and their devoted and un-embittered inferiors downstairs. But no, you all needed to know what goes on behind those black Newport doors and I am just the musically ravenous young man to put his delicate sensibilities to the not-so-tender mercies of our murderous pop culture. I did not go through the Downton cold turkey shakes. I did not emerge unscathed either. One of the lineups qualified for Worst Ever Heap O' Stink and I've been reviewing shows since Moses wore short pants. Read on, lazy bones. Steve Vai is a guitar god, no getting around it. Tuesday night he was so hot, I kept thinking, that's right Eric Clapton, stay home hiding under your bed, Vai's in town and he's SMOKIN'. Hey, Joe Boner-Master, you're a Vegas-wannabe, go blow Wayne Newton. Eddie Van Halen, please take a number and wait your turn for a lesson in the art of the six-string symphonic solo. Satriani, you are fit only to roadie. Get a life. Vai's da man, yo. He's different. He's sort of weird but positive. I've always liked that about him. He gained notoriety playing with Zappa but was really infamous for his transposing Frank's spoken words between songs into guitar music. See what I mean? A solo tour by Vai is a rarity and I'd been looking forward to his Tuesday night gig since I'd first heard about it last summer. First, he ain't no jack off. Pyrotechnic shredding, some, yes. In his long bony hands, though, he manages to NOT come off as your typical mindless metal-head with an axe and Marshall stack doing his best to achieve the much-sought after zombi-fied state of MMI--maximum masturbational insensibility. No, he played hard, he soloed with complexity but he kept it fresh. Nice. And entertaining. While his four fretting hand fingers blurred to look like the 10,000 fingers of Dr. V, he invoked every sound in the known metal universe--deep wang-bar whooshes, spectacular growls, howls and screaming dive-bomber sounds. His leads were liquid, melodic and mellifluous, a combination of flash grenade and substantive solos. While he stitched our minds with tricks and depth, he moved his tall, almost skeletal frame like a sensual belly-dancer. He literally almost never stopped moving, like he was grinding a samba mama in Rio during Carnival. Interesting. Freakish--but interesting. From the moment he took the stage, his backing band of bass, drums and second guitar providing a well-structured rhythmic palette, the fever dipping only when he wanted it to. Like during the “Little Wing”-like ballad, “Tender Surrender,” when the softer side of the man was on display. When a celebrated dude ax-man can play slow and sexy AND emotional on guitar, making sound like Tal Farlowe but with a bazillion more watts of electricity, he's got my vote. Only Jeff Beck has done it better. Vai and Beck--now I'd give up Downton Abbey forever to see those two together. To my recollection, I'd never really been aware of actually hearing anything by the Old 97's or the Drive-By Truckers. Knowing full well pairing them was an alt-country equivalent of a two-for-one coupon in a Saigon cat house, I had no preconceived notion of negativity. As I lost my alt-country cherry to these two bands of brutes, I felt like I'd been violated in the worse way possible and in a way only stupid American bands such as these dung-flingers can: without any discernible sense of style whatsover. My feathers were ruffled. And now, my revenge. The 97's are home to the worst, most obnoxious front man to ever take a dump on American folk-country, Rhett Miller. Every song he looked like somebody more ridiculous than previous. It was good fun figuring out who the idiot reminded me of per tune. During their first awful song about god-knows-what (his lyrics bite the super weenie) because of his huge-lantern-jawed mouth he reminded me of Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters video where Grohl comically plays every character. Next 97's song Miller looked like the wimp Peter Frampton because of his similar hair style and total lack of artistic impact. The next song: Melissa Etheridge crossed with a rabid dog; the next song, a punch-drunk George Forman because he was throwing himself around the stage so. If you throw your dopey body around the stage as a sign of intensity and passion like an ass, you are an ass. Miller was an ass deluxe times the anti-shnizzle factor of being an all-round uncoolest douche bag of a performer. I'll take Joan Baez with a bag over her head any day over him in a coffee house revue. How'd he sing? How do most straight-up asses sing? He didn't--he yelled. LOUDLY. Again, as only an untalented mediocrity can, as a sign of passion. Heaven help his woman on their wedding night. No real passion, just action; no style--neither he nor his crap band of dull hacks--just slobbering dogs in self-induced heat, high on their own fumes, completely lost in reality yet in their obnoxious fantasy world, hey man, we're ROCKIN' TONIGHT! I'm not done. Miller decided mid-set to wiggle his hips like a sorority girl imitating a frat boy imitating a worm escaping from a bottle of tequila. Unsightly, very. It was like a karaoke moment gone awry for Stupid People's Funniest Home Videos, you know the kind where the fanged dog jumps on the sleeping guy's crotch and craps on his plate of leftovers and Aunt Ginny never forgets to bring it up because she secretly can't stand Uncle Rhett's insufferable fuck-head-edness. This is true: the only notes I took said, "You suck you suck you suck you suck." I am forever consigning the Old 97's to my mythical land of taint. Now, ahem, for the Drive-By Truckers, who weren't much better. Again with total lack of style. What's with these slobbering alt-country creeps? Boasting a guitarist who seemed to have inherited Jackson Browne's huge smugness after he brought himself down to earth by beating on poor ol' beautiful Darryl Hannah, Mike Cooley played second fiddle to front man Patterson Hood, who was as uncool as Richard Dreyfuss in any of the shit films that obnoxious turd's been in. Add a Gilligan's Island bassist with a pinhead's bowl cut who acted as if every note he played was the equivalent of Einstein discovering the genetic code to cure syphilis, and you've got one of the most graceless, clunky clumps of jerk-offs ever to take unbridled hick energy and apply it to folk-alt-country. In truth neither band is good enough to play country the way it's supposed to be played, that is, within the parameters of tradition (something Lord and Lady and Grandmama Grantham expound every season). What utterly sinks these otherwise sincere morons is their self-conviction that they're so heavy. The over-dramatics had me screaming silently. You think Robbie Robertson or Rick Danko or Bob Dylan acted like a gang of dogs humping the neighbor's poodle at midnight in the alley? There, I've made my case. A night of catastrophic anti-style. Thank god for the Stones. Dr. Dog, a Pennsylvania band of 12 years in the indie-pop-rock mold, very extremely much made me happy: they've inherited bits of brilliance from the Beach Boys, Elton John's "Candles In The Rain" epic, the Beatles from various phases, odd moods from the best of indie-land's Guided By Voices, or maybe even Ben Fold's absolute best. What I'm straining to say is that these guys brought superior everything to the feast, including red meat rockin' and delicious desserts of non-fattening melodies. On top of it, bassist/singer Toby Leaman, as he warmed up two-thirds through, delivered vocals on par with, oh, a cross between Eddie Vedder, Tom Jones and maybe The Four Tops. Some very excellent singing by this guy. And uniformly fine, fine material the entire set. Guitarist Scott McMicken is an excellent counterpoint to Leaman's depth and strength, being less forceful and more serpentine in his vocals. A good mix, a fine contrast. With the band filling in instrumentally on keyboards and percussion, this group of coordinated mavericks go where very, very few indie bands go: they're own way, rocking hard or gently, they made their point. And with me, they made many points. Count me a brand new and enthusiastic fan. But I'm still sore about the 97 creeps. Saturday night and I don't care if the butler fucks Lady Grantham in her endowment, I wanna rock. But who, exactly, are The Sleigh Bells? Will they suck? Will they rock? Will they make me happy I got my ever-expanding ass off my best friend, my couch? Oh my goodness: the night was a stone cold smashing success. I LOVED Sleigh Bells. Take Nine Inch Nails and turn 'em to a party band, replacing their gloom 'n' doom with sex 'n' beats, fronted by Joan Jett's well-adjusted sister in Alexis Krauss and updated into a ravenously, ravingly good rave-queen and you've got the week's number one energy expending night. Nobody else even came close. The beats were like super-old-school Beastie Boys' “Licensed To Ill” tracks--loud, proud and easy to head-bang to: BOOMBOOMBAH! BOOMBOOMBAH! Instantly groove-able. Her scream-o vocals I didn't trust at first but add the Bells' squalling guitars, electronically filtered drummer (no bassist) and not very many beats per minute and you've got more than just headbanging. You've got body slamming, spine-cracking dinosaur stomps which drove the crowd into a bacchanalian frenzy many times, twice literally the entire place resembling a half-speed orgy with clothes on. For some reason the music inspired many a guy and girl to bend completely backwards. Why, I don't know, but I had a ball digging the absolute rave madness of the kids. Crazy bastards were alright that night, that's for sure, that's for dang sure. So why'd I dig this hugely slobbering event and not the night of the alt-country putzes? This rave-punk-noise energy is what it is--thank god. Sleigh Bells did have plenty of style, though. Like the electrodes of a lobotomy, the experience is designed to break you out of your work week shell. Which they did and I could've used another five hours of it. Plus Krauss is the most un-negative screamer I've ever seen. She seemed genuinely glad to be singing her ass off to a crowd gone nuts and it was mutual love from the pit to the stage and back. Americans get slagged in Downton Abbey regularly for being demonstrably emotive. Fuck that. Just do it with style and you've got my vote, bitch.

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