Steve Vai, ‘Vai/Gash’: Album Review

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Vai was ready to cut loose a little back in 1991. He’d established his guitar-virtuoso cred during a decade of working with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake – arduous, if accomplished, tenures accompanied by various degrees of high-personality drama. He’d recently put his solo career into high gear and was riding high from acclaim for his sophomore effort, 1990’s Passion and Warfare. Amid all that, and what came after, Vai/Gash is something of an outlier, a moment of adrenalized abandon that’s finally being released nearly 32 years after it was recorded.

Gash was John Sombrotto, a Queens, N.Y., native who Vai met through mutual motorcycle friends. Gash, who died in 1998 (two days after Vai’s father), had survived a near-fatal accident when he was 21 and, though scarred (as the nickname suggests), got back on the bike and wound up in Los Angeles during the early ’80s. Vai gravitated to Gash’s “charm and magnetic charisma,” and he had an inkling his new friend could provide the right voice for some “biker-type songs” Vai had been demoing, a clutch of tunes different from the technically minded material on which the guitarist had staked his reputation.

They didn’t work together long – about two weeks by Vai’s estimation, and during that time recorded a half-hour’s worth of music. They were, as Vai has described, “a particular kind of music to listen to when I was riding my Harley-Davidson motorcycle with my friends” and also “reminiscent of a certain type of rock music I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970s.” They’re simpler, in other words, more direct and immediate and with a bash-’em-out quality that we hadn’t heard from Vai up to that point. Vai/Gash is about riffs and songcraft, as well as a spirit of hard rock that was at the time subsumed by the so-called grunge that was defining the moment. If released at the time, it likely would have failed, but more than three decades later, there’s no questioning the authenticity and ferocious passion behind these songs. As Gash sings on “New Sensation,” “I got the Rolling Stones and my wheel’s on fire, I don’t need any more.”

Vai/Gash kicks off with “In the Wind,” riding a Stones/glam-fusing guitar riff with piano pounding in the background and the stacked, in-your-face vocal harmonies that populate much of the album; it’s an anthem for those who prefer their ride sans helmet. “Let’s Jam,” “Danger Zone” and “She Saved My Life Tonight” hew toward Sunset Boulevard heavy rock, while “Busted” boasts the galloping gait of Van Halen‘s “Hot for Teacher.” Vai/Gash‘s change-ups, meanwhile, are the bluesy bounce of “Woman Fever” and “Flowers of Fire,” a power ballad with majestic intentions that would be low-hanging fruit for a producer like Mutt Lange.

It’s intriguing to think about where Vai’s overall career may have gone if there was more time to make music with Gash, and what kind of balance he would have struck between this kind of musical meat-and-potatoes and his artier pursuits. We’ll never know, and though Vai/Gash is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice in his canon, it’s certainly a worthwhile alternative.

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