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In May of 2004, I was fortunate enough to land a gig that turned into one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.
 
The Metropol Orchestra is an institution in Holland, and not in the way that most orchestras are. You think orchestra, you think classical repertoire and older players and material you've either never heard of or heard too often. The Metropol is different; they're like an orchestra in constant musical rebellion against the norm. And what they do best is bring in an unorthodox musician/songwriter/composer—like George Duke, or Mike Keneally, or Herbie Hancock, or Elvis Costello—and play their material in an orchestral setting for often the first time in their careers. The players are uniquely suited for such a task. That's a fancy way of saying that chairs in this orchestra aren't easy to get. These players are all freaks.
 
I became familiar with the Metropol through Mike Keneally, who did a show with them in 2003 which resulted in the upcoming release "The Universe Will Provide," an incredible record of truly avant-garde music played by truly avant-garde musicians. I'd also heard through the grapevine that Steve Vai was planning to do a show with the Metropol. You can imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from Co de Kloet, the "Creative Catalyst" (I'll spare you the organizational details; just know he's the man who put it all together) of the project, asking if I would be interested in doing the Vai/Metropol gig, as the regular bassist for the Metropol—widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, bassist working in Holland today—was unavailable.
 
Saying yes meant I would have to read charts along with a bunch of high-caliber working pros...and play fretless, something I'd never done in front of anyone, anywhere (it became obvious to me that this would be necessary for "For The Love Of God"). Of course, saying anything but yes was totally out of the question. With the charts in my hands in advance, and plenty of hours of practice on a fine new fretless bass courtesy of Mike Lull Custom Guitars, I set off for Holland.
 
This would also be my very first live gig with Steve Vai. I'd done studio work with him before, and there's a long story behind that as well. (For anyone who's interested in it, just click here.) The set list was split into brand new material, and some of the most well-known material, like "Answers", "For The Love Of God", and "The Attitude Song." For someone who was a freshman bassist at Berklee College Of Music in 1989-1990 (the year Passion & Warfare came out and literally took over the school), it was hard to imagine a greater opportunity.
 

I could easily fill 10 pages with text about how amazing the trip was, how wonderful the players in the Metropol were, how kind and welcoming they were to me as a guest in their world, how incredible the rhythm section was...OK, I'll take a second and talk about the rhythm section. The drummer, Arno van Nieuwenhuize, was an FZ-level polyrhythm-sightreading maniac with a groove you could drive an 18-wheeler in. Pieter Tiehuis, the guitarist, was Pat Metheny...or John Scofield...or Bill Frisell...or Steve Vai...or himself, depending on what was required. His versatility and tone were simply incredible; the fact that he could do it all on a vintage Strat with high action and heavy strings would shame most American guitarists. I spent most of my time musically connecting with these two fine gentlemen, and I thought I should mention that.

From left to right: guitarist Pieter Tiehuis, myself, drummer Arno van Nieuwenhuize. I have, by far, the most boring name of the three of us.

 

We rehearsed for two weeks. It's a nice gig. Rehearsals were led by the Metropol's renowned conductor, Dick Bakker, in a fairly loose fashion. The schedule was 10AM—2:30PM, with coffee and lunch breaks, Monday through Friday, with Wednesdays off. I know, pretty tough. I had plenty of time to get used to the beautiful surroundings of Hilversum, one of the nicest towns in all of Holland, and a great place to ride a bicycle.

If you can't ride a bike while carrying two bass guitars, you can't be a guest with the Metropol Orchestra. Luckily I passed this part of the audition and kept my teeth intact as well.
 

But back to the gig. Steve showed up in the second week, and we all went through a short adjustment period while the carefully balanced execution of the orchestra mated with Steve's signature screaming guitar tone. Lots of changes were made to the scores on the fly, and there seemed to be a constant committee meeting going on between Steve Vai, Dick Bakker, orchestrators Tom Trapp and Chris Opperman, and Co de Kloet. Section by section—woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion—had their moment of analysis. It was pretty incredible to watch.

Steve Vai and Metropol Orchestra conductor Dick Bakker accept accolades onstage in Amsterdam.

The first tune of the show was called "Is It Over Yet?", and rightly so—it was a 10-minute-plus tour de force of variations on a new musical theme interspersed with excerpts from some of Steve's older material ("Lucky Charms" and "There's A Fire In The House" were two of them). But the showstopper was a four-minute violin cadenza written, in Steve's words, "to break the violinist's back". The responsibility for playing such an impossibly difficult thing falls to the first violin section leader, or the "concertmaster." (Think of this person as the lead guitarist of the orchestra.) The Metropol's concertmaster was a quiet, unassuming, middle-aged lady named Arlea. One of the most amazing musical things I've ever seen was the sight of this relatively obscure Dutch lady absolutely tearing the shit out of a true Steve Vai solo piece, something that would have been mindblowing on guitar, let along violin. The orchestra broke out into spontaneous applause after the first time she did it in rehearsal.

Concertmaster and virtuoso violinist Arlia de Ruiter executes the difficult cadenza in "Is It Over Yet?" during rehearsal. I was in awe of her.

OK, I'm doing exactly what I said I wouldn't do—write a mountain of text—so I'll skip ahead to the pictures, as they'll undoubtedly say more than my never-ending supply of words. Just know that the three shows—one in Groningen, and two in Amsterdam at the world-famous Paradiso—were, for me, musical experiences non pareil, and I couldn't imagine any better way for me to finally, at long last, play a live gig with Steve Vai, while at the same time he discovered for himself a new frontier for his own musical vision. It truly was my privilege to be a small part of it.
 
Click HERE to check out the rest of the pictures, with clever captions provided at no extra charge.