Photos by Al Mannarino, Words by Lucas P. Jones
When I first heard about the Generation Axe tour, my heart stopped. Five of my favorite guitar players at once? Sign me up! With names like Tosin Abasi, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, and the legendary Steve Vai, this show was every guitar players dream. So I grabbed my pencil and notebook and went to Red Bank, NJ for what was sure to be an incredible evening at the Count Basie Theater.
The show opened with all five musicians playing the Boston song “Foreplay” which was an excellent choice considering the many layers that song has. Then Tosin Abasi took the stage. Abasi is from a band called Animals As Leaders, a djent band out of Washington D.C. Tosin is the youngest of the bunch, but he very quickly showed people why he was included on this tour. His lightning fast sweeps, complex and interesting rhythm playing, and his use of odd time signatures are hallmark of his extremely progressive sound. He uses an 8-string guitar, with the two extra string being tuned to lower notes, almost as low as a bass guitar, which lends itself to his percussive guitar sound. He was joined by Nuno Bettencourt for his last song, “Physical Ed”, which seemed to challenge Nuno, even saying at the end “Does Tosin even know where the “1” is in that song?”
Nuno Bettencourt is guitar player from Extreme, however sharp eyed concert goers may have spotted him onstage during Rhianna’s recent tour. Extreme is known for its “funk metal” sound, and reached its height in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Bettencourt, however, is an extremely talented player, effortlessly combining the loose feel of funk music with the tight technicality of shred metal. Nuno blazed effortlessly through a medley of his best songs and solos, including a flawless version of “Play With Me”, even including an acoustic guitar performance that was mind-blowing. He began playing the first bars of “More than Words” before saying “Fuck it! Not tonight!.” He was joined onstage by Zakk Wylde, a man “Whose heart is the only thing bigger than his biceps.”
Zakk Wylde is known for an intense style of play, combining vicious blues based solos with aggressive use of the wah pedal and whammy bar. This was on full display, when he opened with a 17 minute version of Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.”. He paced the stage back and forth, stopping only to melt the nearest concert goers face off. He broke into “Dazed and Confused”, and then played through “Little Wing” before climbing off-stage to shred in the aisles. Having been only about three feet from Zakk, I’m not sure I believe Nuno when he says that anything is bigger than Zakk’s biceps. Wylde finished up with a 15 minute version of “Whipping Post”, a song which many fail to do justice, but not Zakk Wylde. Tearing through verses and solos with ease, Zakk Put on what might have been the best performance of the night.
Next up was Yngwie Malmsteen. Known for his blazing neo-classical style of guitar playing, Malmsteen put on a completely overwhelming display of talent and style. Wearing what might be the same pair of leather pants he bought in 1980, his guitar playing was rivaled only by his showmanship. Several guitar changes, more pick refills than I could count, spin moves, and guitar tosses all peppered his set, which was full of light-speed solos and riffs that would make even the most seasoned shredder give up the instrument. “Arpeggios from Hell” and a speedy rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” were the standout parts of his set. Then around 10:30, Vai was invited on stage, and the main event had begun.
Vai played for a full hours, and with every minute onstage, Vai demonstrated why he was headlining the show. A student of Frank Zappa, Vai has played on solo records, as well as a stint with Alcatrazz, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth, and the G3 tour. As one of my earliest guitar heroes, and a person whose songs I’ve studied obsessively to try and improve my own playing, seeing Vai again was sure to be a treat. After teaming up with Yngwie to play “Black Star”, Vai launched into a selection of his own tracks. Moving from the ballad based “Tender Surrender”, to the loose and heavy groove of “Gravity Storm,” to the ridiculous two handed over-the-neck tapping parts of “Building the Church”, Vai was a perfect storm of playing ability and showmanship. You physically cannot take your eyes off of him as he moves around the stage.
Steve then brought out the rest of the Generation Axe Tour for two final songs, “Frankenstein” and “Highway Star”, which were, in a word, absurd. Two super shred worthy songs being played by five of the greatest living guitar players on Earth was the only way you could possibly end this evening, which lasted a total of four hours. This show was an experience unlike any other I’ve had. Special mention does need to go to the bassist and drummer, who managed to back up every single artist without missing a beat. The show left me speechless, and my ears ringing. The display of pure guitar virtuosity was something I won’t ever forget, and now I’m counting down the days until I get to see these guitar giants again.