Steve Vai Brings Passion and Warfare to the Fillmore

The album cover features a quintet of fairies flying around Vai, suggesting a shamanic ability to traverse alternate dimensions. The album does exactly that, with Vai exploring bold sonic territory in a compelling manner.
Steve Vai

When Steve Vai released his dazzling Passion and Warfare LP in 1990, instrumental guitar albums were a regular part of the hard rock landscape. It was still something of a career risk, though, since Vai was coming off big-time arena rock tours with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. But the otherworldly guitar mastery and sonic diversity on display made the album an instant classic for guitar fanatics.

Vai would rarely play to arena-size audiences again, but the album cemented his status as one of the most talented virtuoso guitarists to ever pick up a six-string. He never toured behind it, though, which makes this year’s tour to honor the 25th anniversary of the album one of the most long-awaited events in guitar history. The Fillmore is therefore packed with guitar freaks in anticipation of Vai’s performance of the entire album. As the lights dim, the stage screen shows a clip from the semi-classic 1986 Walter Hill film Crossroads, in which Vai played the devil’s guitarist whom protagonist Ralph Macchio had to combat in a cutting duel in the film’s climax. It was superb casting due to how Vai has long been known as a guitarist who can do anything possible on the fretboard (an inherent attribute that comes with replacing Eddie Van Halen as David Lee Roth’s sidekick in the mid-’80s.)

Vai comes onstage in a mystical fashion, wearing a hooded robe like a character from Middle Earth or Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After a few tunes to warm up, Vai speaks of how one of the reasons he never toured behind the album is because he had concerns about his ability to reproduce it. The album is indeed packed with overdubs and extensive sonic layering, but Vai’s the type of virtuoso who is surely up to the task. He demonstrates this early on during “Erotic Nightmares”, one of the album’s more incendiary tracks as Vai burns up the fretboard over a hot groove. “The Animal” receives a similar treatment as Vai delivers a sizzling array of melty leads and spectacular chops over a funky progression.

But unlike many of the heavy metal guitar albums of the era, Passion and Warfare impressed with its adventurous diversity as Vai explored a variety of sonic landscapes. The album cover features a quintet of fairies flying around Vai, suggesting a shamanic ability to traverse alternate dimensions. The album does exactly that, with Vai exploring bold sonic territory in a compelling manner. “Answers” shows Vai in a playful and uplifting mood, throwing down melodic leads over an upbeat major key jam while jamming with a video of friend and mentor Joe Satriani. “The Riddle” on the other hand moves into a more ambient mid-tempo realm, yet with Vai still pulling sonic tricks from up his sleeve. The tap-ons and harmonics have become something of a lost art as the alternative rock revolution saw guitarists moving more toward punk and classic rock stylings, leaving the theatrics behind. But when done with skill and flair, such guitar pyrotechnics can still have a deep emotional impact as Vai demonstrates here.

“For the Love of God” serves as a spiritual centerpiece of the set, with a foreboding bluesy sound that seems like an existential trip to a distant mountaintop to commune with spirits and ancestors on a vision quest. The screen behind the stage shows an array of images of widely varying personas from monks to Hitler, JFK and Nixon, Jesus and nuclear bombs as Vai pays guitar homage to “walking a fine line between pagan and Christian” (as Whitesnake singer David Coverdale says at the end of the album track.)

“The Audience Is Listening” kicks the show back into overdrive with a high-octane rocker featuring the classic video of a young Vai rocking out with his band in a grade school class, ala Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” (which the song resembles in both sound and spirit, a tribute of sorts to Vai’s time filling Eddie Van Halen’s formidable shoes.) “I Would Love To” soars as Vai and his band rock out on the high energy jam while another classic MTV-era video from the song plays behind them. The song epitomizes Vai’s ability to make an instrumental song accessible with great melodies and infectious energy that pull the audience in.

Vai brings it back down a notch with “Blue Powder”, a ballad about “peace and love and good happiness stuff” that provides a well-placed breather after the rocking that preceded it. “Greasy Kid Stuff” gets back to rocking out in a big way as the album winds toward its conclusion. The short but sweet “Alien Water Kiss” is a true standout moment, an otherworldly track of just over one minute in which Vai uses his effects like a sonic alchemist to create the sound of romance in another dimension. “Sisters” builds on this vibe, with Vai showing his softer side on an atmospheric track devoted to a more platonic emotion. “Love Secrets” then closes the album with a quest to “discover the secrets of love” as Vai pulls another pack of sonic rabbits out of his hat for a mind-bending conclusion on what seems like a track from a strange dream world.

The show isn’t over yet though as Vai and company keep on rocking with some obligatory Frank Zappa, a nod to the counterculture icon with whose band Vai first came to acclaim. Vai then throws caution to the wind by inviting two fans up on stage to help create the next song.

“Don’t step on my pedals or the universe will implode into a black hole,” Vai warns the girl Iris, who is also accompanied by a male friend. Vai’s warning hints at what many guitarists have experienced when a pedal board goes awry, but with his seemingly extraterrestrial skills and sounds, who knows what kind of cosmic wormhole might indeed be conjured? But Vai keeps things organic by asking the duo to come up with short beats and melodies from scratch, which the band then builds into a groovy jam, aided by guest Jeff Watson from Night Ranger. This turns out to be one of the funkiest numbers of the night, with the Vai and Watson rocking out over the very danceable groove. Vai could probably have had a great career as a jamrock guitarist if he were so inclined, but watching him perform his highly orchestrated masterpiece here makes Passion and Warfare seem like pure destiny…