Steve Vai, ‘Vai/Gash’: Album Review

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

Gash was John Sombrotto, a Queens, NY native whom 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, although scarred (as the nickname suggests), got back on the bike and ended up in Los Angeles in the race of the early days. The 80s. Vai was attracted to Gash’s “charm and magnetic charisma” and had a hunch that his new friend could provide the right voice for some “biker-type songs.” Vai had demos, a series of tunes that were different from the technically minded material on which the guitarist had staked his reputation.

They didn’t work together for long—about two weeks by Vai’s estimation, during which time they recorded half an hour of music. They were, as Vai has described, “a special kind of music to listen to when I was riding my Harley-Davidson motorcycle with my friends” and “also reminded me of a certain type of rock music I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970s.” They are simpler, in other words, more direct and immediate and with a bash’em-out quality that we hadn’t heard from Vai until then. Wow/Gash is about riffs and songcraft, as well as a spirit of hard rock, which at the time was engulfed by the so-called grunge that defined the moment. If released at the time, it probably would have failed, but more than three decades later, there is no doubting the authenticity and fierce passion behind these songs. As Gash sings on “New Sensation,” “I got The Rolling Stones and my wheel is on fire, I need no more.”

Wow/Gash starting 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 riding without a helmet. “Let’s Jam”, “Danger Zone” and “She Saved My Life Tonight” chop towards Sunset Boulevard heavy rock, while “Busted” boasts a galloping gait. Van Halen‘Hot for the teacher’. Wow/Gashs changes, 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 exciting to think where Vai’s overall career might 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 will never know, and yet Wow/Gash is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice in his canon, it’s certainly a valuable alternative.

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