‘I’m going to come back here again and I’m going to bring my band,” said an exuberant Steve Vai at the end of a two-hour-plus guitar master class he gave to a rapt sold-out audience in 2010 at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium.
It only took a little over four years, but the fabled 56-year-old hard rock guitar virtuoso is making good on his promise, returning to Israel with his quartet on March 26 at the Tel Aviv Opera House as part of a yearlong 200 show-plus tour.
“Just call me a goodwill ambassador for Israel,” laughed Vai into the phone from his home in California recently. He was recalling his experiences during his first time in the country, that peaked with the master class filled with sharp-witted stories, lightning-fast guitar runs and a joyful jam session with some lucky members of the audience.
“It was a real treat to come to Israel, and I was really surprised by the crowd at the show. I didn’t expect to see so many people there, and they were so enthusiastic and appreciative,” said Vai, an Italian-American who grew up in New York.
A prototype lead guitarist – boasting a thin, yet chiseled frame, with long, flowing hair – Vai has lived the rock & roll dream from an early age since attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Whether honing his chops as accompanist for Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth or one-time teacher Joe Satriani, or exploring expansive musical avenues over a diverse 30-year solo career, Vai has built a rock-solid reputation as a guitarist’s guitarist.
“I’m pretty fortunate doing the kind of thing I do, because people love guitars all around the world,” said the multi-platinum three-time Grammy Award-winning musician. “In almost every country, there’s a contingent of people that love the guitar – like to see people play it and love to hear it. As a result, I can pretty much go anywhere in the world and there will be some kind of audience who will come out and see me.”
“What I remember about the Israeli audience when I did the master class was how completely enthusiastic they were, hanging on every word,” said Vai, who jammed at the end of the class with local blues slinger Avi Singolda. “It was really a receptive audience.”
For repeat attendees, Vai promised an equally engaging evening for his current show, based on his most recent album Story of Light.
“Don’t worry, I don’t stand there for three hours and turn into this introverted guitar... wanker, so to speak.
The show is well paced, and there is a lot of ‘show’ in it,” said Vai. “We play material from the new record, some stuff the fans are expecting and a handful of songs we’ve never recorded. There’s lots of ebb and flow, with some incredible dynamics, ranging from intense to [a] whole acoustic set where we create different dynamics. And of course, there’s some funny banter, I communicate a lot with the audience.”
Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing element is when Vai and the audience build a song together.
“I pick people from the crowd to come onstage and help us write a piece. It can be pretty funny, but we usually get a good jam out of it and it’s a kick for the audience.”
Taking the audience participation concept a few steps further, Vai is unveiling this spring the Vai Academy Song Evolution Camp, which will take place June 23-27 in Saratoga Springs, New York. The camp, where Vai will be joined by respected guitarists like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Guthrie Govan and Vernon Reid, will focus on the evolution of a song. Attendees will learn how a song gets written, recorded, mixed, mastered, packaged, copyrighted, registered, digitally distributed, and marketed.
“It’s different from your conventional guitar camp. A lot of people are doing that and I wanted to do something different,” explained Vai.
“I reflected on all my years as an independent musician and tried to put in a nutshell what a young musician wants – and for the most part, what they want is to learn how to write a song, record it, mix it and then release it... get a finished song and make it available to the world. That’s what most musicians are looking for, and I’ve done that my whole life so I based the camp on doing it.”
Vai and his campers will write a song, record it, mix it and distribute it digitally, all in four days, interspersed with lectures on aspects of the music business like marketing and music publishing, all topped by jam sessions galore.
“Most musicians don’t understand publishing and how they need to protect their intellectual property, and this demystifies it for them,” said Vai, adding that the camp is all about the whole process of understanding the music business.
“You take an idea, create something, cultivate it and get it out into the world. It’s a process every musician should understand. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 50. There are plenty 50 year-olds who have spent their lives wanting to write, record and release their own song. This is their chance.”
Vai said he wouldn’t be surprised is some of the Israeli amateurs he invited onstage over four years ago in Tel Aviv ended up participating in the camp. But it wasn’t only the musicianship that impressed him – he was serious when he mentioned being a goodwill ambassador for Israel. Before arriving in 2010, he researched the country after many conversations with the promoter of the master class, but it still didn’t prepare him for the normality of Tel Aviv.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the only information a foreigner can get is what’s on the news,” he said.
“I never used to think it was even possible to walk around Tel Aviv – from what we know in America, it sounds like there’s nothing but chaos. But I talked to a lot of people who assured me it wasn’t like that. And they were right, I felt great, was able to tour around, got to Jerusalem for the whole experience there and had a fascinating time in the country. Whenever I’m asked, I tell fellow musicians, fans and friends that Israel’s an amazing place.”