The Generation Axe tour pulled into Kansas City for a show at the Uptown Theater on Friday, April 15, 2016. The concept of the tour is certainly bold: five legends sharing the stage and showing off their guitar skills for over three hours. And its success hinges on whether you are focusing on the music, or the experience.
A supergroup of sorts, the tour consists of five of the top ten most respected guitarists in the world performing solo sets, collaborations, and a couple of covers featuring all five on stage at once. Put together by headliner Steve Vai, the other stars on the tour are speed metal legend Yngwie Malmsteen, patron saint of guitar squeals Zakk Wylde, the equally talented Nuno Bettencourt, lead guitarist of Extreme, and underground technical metal hero Tosin Abasi of instrumental act Animals As Leaders. It’s also worth noting that Animals As Leaders drummer, Matt Garstka, is touring with the ensemble as drummer this year.
Let’s start with the good things about Generation Axe: all five of these guitarists are among the greatest to ever live. In one way or another, they either pioneered a sound that has become popular among other bands, or mastered a previous style to the point of becoming the definitive example, likely forever. And all of them showed they can perform these insanely difficult songs live with zero visible effort. The concept is so strong that you are hit with a sense of awe as five of the world’s greatest guitarists share the stage and trade solos through the intro cover of Boston’s “Foreplay.” Each individual guitarist showed their trademark skill in an engaging and genuinely fun way: Tosin‘s ability to shift between equally bizarre time signatures and make it sound really cool, Nuno‘s classical acoustic fingerpicking that could make him the star of any orchestra and equally amazing hair metal riffage, Zakk Wylde‘s unmistakable squeal-filled sludge and approachable personality (he spent two very long solos standing in the middle of the crowd, posing for selfies with fans and headbanging wildly while never missing a note), Yngwie‘s unbelievably fast hands, and Steve Vai‘s mastery of every style, allowing him to match each of his tourmates at their own game.
And the best moments certainly came from the occasional collaboration. While each individual artist was a force of nature, seeing two of them blend styles together for a song was remarkable. Nuno Bettencourt joined Tosin Abasi at the end of his set and added a haunting, incredibly melodic hook over the most difficult, bizarre song of the evening. Likewise, at the end of Bettencourt‘s set, Zakk Wylde joined him for a dark ballad featuring dueling vocals and solos alike. It was a strange choice in that it wasn’t particularly flashy, but the two together showed the ability to make simple music sound amazing. The 13+ minute collaboration between Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai was about 95% solos, which is a fitting way to pit those two together. And the covers featuring all five members, the aforementioned “Foreplay” and a closing rendition of Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” were bookends showcasing all members equally. I have to also give an honorable mention to Zakk Wylde‘s vocals: while not the focus of the evening, his Ozzy impression on “N.I.B.” sounds better than Ozzy does.
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.