As I stood outside The Rapids Theatre last Saturday night, the running joke among the gathered appeared to revolve around whether or not Yngwie Malmsteen’s Caesarean ego would even fit inside the building. His reputation for exhibiting capricious behavior had clearly preceded him and the only thing left to do was prove that he could co-exist with the other unique skill sets on stage. Was the skepticism unfair? Perhaps, but, when your merchandise team is peddling shirts that read “Yngwie Who? Yngwie Fucking Malmsteen That’s Who!,” many would argue that you’re just getting what you deserve.
It’s a good thing, then, that Steve Vai was at the helm, because he was able to indulge each guitarist’s idiosyncrasies just enough to present a unified front worthy of Phil Jackson’s 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers. He orchestrated a show that allotted ample space for all five players to shine while never losing sight of the ultimate goal of collective transcendence. If Generation Axe was meant as an ode to the lost art of shredding, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more inspired lineup than the one that Vai put together.
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders drew the shortest straw and found himself in the difficult position of having to win over a crowd that was already reeling from how long it took to funnel everyone through the doors. Despite being the least recognizable name on the marquee, he delivered versions of “Tempting Time” and “The Woven Web” worthy of future headline status. His adaptation of Victor Wooten’s double thump technique laid down a saucy groove unlike anything the other four axemen brought forth, which made his collaboration with Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt on something as complex as “Physical Education” all the more intriguing.
Though Bettencourt introduced his own material by saying that he was going to “dumb it down a little,” the passion and melodic structuring of his solos was indicative of a deeper musical intelligence than his association with the 1980s glam metal scene suggests. Sure, he played “Get the Funk Out” and teased a few bars of “More Than Words” at one point, but his acoustic bliss on “Midnight Express” showcased why he was chosen for the tour to begin with. What he and Zakk Wylde did later on with Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” was jaw-dropping, and will go down as one of the signature moments of western New York’s 2018 concert year.
Because watching someone shred in place for nearly four hours can get repetitive, Wylde decided to travel to all four corners of the room and even stood on top of the bar during “Into the Void” to ensure that nobody went home empty-handed. Then again, I heard plenty of rumbling from people who didn’t necessarily want to hear another 15-minute version of “War Pigs,” so maybe some fans did leave feeling underwhelmed by the song selection. It was my third time experiencing Zakk live since 2012, and, while I would have welcomed a change-up, seeing him seize control of an audience is never disappointing.
When Steve Vai’s number was called, he delivered renditions of “There’s a Fire in Here” and “For the Love of God” with surgical precision before allowing Yngwie to do what Yngwie does.
There’s a difference of opinion within the musical community regarding pieces such as “Arpeggios From Hell” and “Black Star” saying anything beyond their shred aesthetic, but it’s hard to argue with talent when it’s 20 feet away melting your face off. Yngwie Malmsteen is Reagan-era excess turned up to 11, so, if you didn’t care for it coming in, his performance probably didn’t alter your perception.
The centerpiece of the set arrived in the form of an instrumental take on “Bohemian Rhaspody” that saw all five guitarists on stage at the same time. A timely move given the recent success of the biopic and a shining example of what can happen when egos are pushed aside in pursuit of a higher purpose.