First off, I am new to this forum. Mr. Vai is one of my favorite axe men, composers and musicians.
I was excited to see the June issue of Guitar Player magazine with the Generation Axe cover story. I was also delighted to read of the upcoming Passion and Warfare tour later this year. To all of you who may be on the fence about attending, I’ll say this: You need to go, now, while you still can. While there are still people who do this kind of music. Once they are gone, it’s over and too late.
However, I do have a purpose for joining the forum. Somebody has to be the bad guy, so I guess it will be me. After reading several of the recent European PAW reviews, as well as a couple of U.S. Gen Axe reviews, it would appear that I am not alone in my thinking.
In early April I attended the Gen Axe show in Los Angeles. I am not going to critique the performances of the various players. The main reason is that it is sort of pointless since none of the performers would even walk across the street to hear me play for free. In that sense I sort of am not qualified to comment. However, what I feel I am qualified to comment on is the delivery of the music.
I am pushing age 60, and have been playing guitar for around 45 years. Recent concerts that I have attended have included Van Halen, Kings of Leon, Motley Crue and Black Sabbath. Over the past several years I have gotten into the habit, for whatever reason, of taking a set of earplugs to concerts.......just in case. At the Crue show, first time I'd ever seen it, there were tables outside the arena giving away free earplugs to those who wanted them. For me personally they weren't necessary, but special thanks to whomever thought to do that gesture.
The earplugs for me have not been really necessary until this Gen Axe show. I can honestly say that this was the most uncomfortable delivery of music, live or recorded, that I have ever attended. It was loud. Physically painful loud. Unbearably loud. Inexcusably loud. Walking out and demanding a refund lest you suffer hearing damage loud. Lawsuit generating due to permanent hearing damage loud. Probably breaking the law and local public safety ordinances loud. From the opening chords, it was absolutely necessary to use the ear plugs. If I had not brought them, there was no way that I would or could have stayed more than a few minutes. I have no idea how anyone sitting in our area made it through the show without them. I have wondered ever since how many people suffered irreversible hearing damage from this concert. For the record, we were sitting in the mezzanine/balcony area.
In hindsight I am really baffled over this. Perhaps more than the other participants in Gen Axe, Steve Vai's music is arguably more sophisticated. More dynamics, more compositional details, and the like. It really requires and cries out for thoughtful and intelligent sound reinforcement. At this concert, that was nowhere to be found. And I would think that any performer would want their music to be experienced without having to shove a piece of foam rubber in their ear canal. As a side note, on another area of the Vai website, Steve does comment that he wears hearing protection, but doesn’t give any specifics.
For those that are not musicians, the sound heard on stage is usually completely different than what is delivered to the audience. The performers conceivably have no clue as to what the audience is getting. The performers, and the audience, are totally at the mercy of the sound crew.
So how could this happen? As a patron/paying customer I really shouldn’t care about why or how. But a few things have occurred to me.
1) Are the guys running the sound, when they adjust things at the sound check, wearing earplugs? If so, does this make sense to do it this way? Not to me. Are the levels being set if using ear plugs not a true representation of what is actually being delivered to the audience? Aren’t you assuming that everyone who files in to see the show also will be carrying the same hearing protection? Shouldn’t the band or venue be handing out free hearing protection if they are going to be operating this way? What if there was a notice printed on the tickets, OR on the ads for the concert: “Due to possible hearing damage, hearing protection is suggested.”
2) At this venue (The Wiltern) the sound board is on the main floor. The PA speakers are hung from the ceiling, over their heads. We were sitting in the balcony, above the floor, in the direct line of fire of the PA. Therefore, is the sound as loud on the main floor as it is in the balcony? Maybe not. Does the sound crew check for this problem at several different areas in the venue? Are there “monitors” or sensors placed around the venues to check for SPLs that relay information back to the operators, or better yet adjust the levels automatically? Are they being used? As a matter of fact, do the bands/crews even measure the SPLs?
3) I’d be willing to bet that EVERY city has ordinances to protect the public from exposure to excessive sound pressure levels. I checked this afternoon, and my little city does, so I’d bet everything I own that a city like LA does. Is it in the contracts that concert attendees shall not be injured? Are the bands and their crew aware of this? Do they care? Do the venues care? Does the city care? What happens if the city staff shows up, finds things out of compliance, and shuts things down?
Any guitar player can tell you that we love to OCD on our “tone”. Guitars to amps to pickups to tubes to strings to picks to different op amps to silicon to germanium to on and on and on and on. Our ears are our most important instruments. And so on and so forth. And yet, sound reinforcement like that at this show just flushes all of that money spent on gear down the toilet.
Now lest you think that I'm being a whiner, before writing this I went on line to see if any other reviews of the tour had any similar comments. Guess what? There is a review of the Kansas City show that said the same thing. In addition to that, as I pointed out earlier there have been several comments from the recent PAW shows as well on the same subject right here on the forum. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm starting to think that this has been a recurring problem on these tours. It is only a matter of time until there is a lawsuit, or a concert gets shut down for public safety, or word of mouth gets out to skip a tour altogether.
I am really looking forward to the PAW tour and hope that there is a stop in LA. However, I also hope that Mr. Vai sees this, ponders it, takes it seriously, and takes steps to see that it does not happen again. His music and his audience deserves better. Unlike a lot of other performers, I get the feeling that Steve really cares about his music and performances, and also has the clout to get something done about this.
Below is an excerpt from another review on the Gen Axe tour.
Gen Axe review, April 15, 2016, Kansas City:
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“Unfortunately, even with all of that going well, one unforgivable thing went bad: the sound. Over the course of the night, the guitars got steadily louder, to the point where by halfway through Zakk Wylde‘s set, the buzz from the gain was drowning out many of the actual notes being played. By the time Yngwie took the stage, the guitars drowned out the backing band (keys and bass disappeared entirely, and drums were limited to a muffled kick). It made the 3+ hour event physically draining to attend, even with assigned seating. By the end of the night, it become hard to care about how great everyone on stage was, because the sound quality was so abysmal. I am not sure if the problem was on the venue’s side or the tour side. It’s possible we just had a bad sound engineer for the evening, but it’s also possible the performers want their level set that high.
If you are on the fence about attending, my advice would be to go, but bring ear plugs just in case (jamming fingers in my ears fixed a lot of the sound problems, but was equally uncomfortable) and don’t feel bad if you end up leaving early. I’m glad I went, but I also would likely not go again unless a future version of the tour focused more on the collaborations and less on the solo material.”
Been to a Vai show? Review it here. Please post in the appropriate thread for each show!
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