By Michael Lester and Chris Krepich
WILKES-BARRE — Flashily clad in tight black leather pants and a black leather jacket revealing chest hair, brash legendary guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen emerged to a smoke-filled stage at the F.M. Kirby Center Thursday night with a towering wall of ear-splitting Marshall amplifiers as his backdrop.
Nothing says ’80s hair metal quite like a wall of Marshalls!
Throughout his screeching — and very loud — one-hour, 35-minute set spanning 17
songs, Malmsteen repeatedly tossed his axe to a guitar tech who would emerge at
the rear of the stage toward the end of Malmsteen’s shredding solos. After one playful round of catch with the tech, Malmsteen turned to salute the sparse yet energized crowd that barely filled one-third of the 1,800-seat venue in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Time and again, the long- and shaggy-haired, Swede, who turns 51June 30 — he could pass for 10 years younger — flicked guitar picks to adoring fans standing below the stage, offering unsolicited souvenirs from the opening night of the 20-date Guitar Gods tour Malmsteen is headlining.
Known as “The Maestro,” Malmsteen was backed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Nick Marino, bassist Ralph Ciavolino and drummer Mark Ellis. That trio was uniquely arranged on stage in a tight area to Malmsteen’s right. They had to make room for that gigantic tower of amps, after all.
Ciavolino instructed the crowd to “Make some noise” to start the show. They, of course, obliged. But Malmsteen was making the most noise in the theater, both musically and visually.
Treating his guitars like a Frisbee at times, Malmsteen tossed his instrument high above his head at one point, cradling it as it returned from its flight. He held his guitar to his face, picking it with his teeth. At one point, he lifted a guitar, placing it at the top of the amp tower.
It was his guitar the fans were there to see. After a drum solo by Ellis, Malmsteen burst into “Heaven Tonight,” perhaps one of his most recognizable tunes from his highest-charting album, 1988’s “Odyssey.” That reached No. 40 on the Billboard 200.
During breaks between performances by the bill’s four bands, more than a few in attendance at the Kirby spoke of playing guitar in bands themselves and idolizing Malmsteen since his 1980s emergence with the band Alcatrazz.
Malmsteen’s admirers included Gary Hoey, whose blend of blues metal preceded
Malmsteen on stage. Hoey, two years older than Malmsteen, described Malmsteen as “one of my favorite guitarists,” before launching into “Utopia,” the title track of his 2010 album.
It was Hoey himself, though, who arguably stole the show Thursday night with his
melodic, precise blues-style picking.
Hoey closed his 8-song set with his hit, “Hocus Pocus,” an instrumental number borrowed from ’70s band Focus that reached the billboard Top 5 in 1993, before surrendering the stage to Malmsteen.
The bill also included current Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, who began his turn on stage by shooting some video of the crowd and then teasing a riff from Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” with his dual-neck guitar.
Thal said he’s no stranger to Wilkes-Barre, recalling a Guns N’ Roses at the nearby Mohegan Sun Arena back on Nov. 20, 2011.
Thal showed a wide range in both guitar style and vocal range. His Zappa-influenced playing included elements of punk, blues, jazz and classical. Thal’s 9-song set included the Pink Panther Theme, in addition to his “Guitars Suck” followed two songs later by “Guitars Still Suck.”
Even if you weren’t a fan of this heavy throwback “shredding” guitar genre going in, you could hardly argue that the guitar work sucked. That said, the first show of the Guitar Gods tour, which included performances by TD Clark and the Gary Douglas Band, had some sound and production hiccups. Yet it demonstrated there’s still a segment of music fans pining for the ferocious licks and guitar tricks of the big hair days.