By Mike O’Cull
Grammy-winning guitar superstar Steve Vai throws down a biker rock experience and pays tribute to a fallen friend on his new record Vai / Gash.
The album hits the streets January 27th, 2023 via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group and features the legendary guitar genius doing the most unexpected-for-him thing possible: playing straight-ahead, 70s-style hard rock with big riffs, driving beats, and vocal hooks. Vai is one of the most technically proficient guitarists to emerge in the 20th Century and his original music is normally full of complex harmony, astounding chops, and an otherworldly sense of melody.
Vai ditches it all on these tracks, which were intended to be heard at highway speeds. “This record was written and recorded in somewhat of a stream of consciousness in 1991 within perhaps a 2-week period as an answer to my desire to have a particular kind of music to listen to when I was riding my Harley-Davidson motorcycle with my friends,” said Vai. “It’s reminiscent of a certain type of rock music I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970’s. These recordings sat on the shelf for over 30 years and are being released now in 2023.”
Why did this record chill for so long? There’s a story, of course.
It’s name is Johnny “Gash” Sombrotto.
Vai, a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, met Sombrotto through a mutual friend and bonded quickly over biker culture and became close. In 1977 at the age of 21, Sombrotto had a serious accident that caused his body to catch fire while plunging 30 feet onto a barbed wire fence. As Vai writes in the liner notes, “The doctors told his family that he had third degree burns over 60% of his body, and that if he even survived, there was a strong possibility that he would lose his right arm and left leg. While in the Burn Unit, he endured excruciating pain, especially when given the intense daily cycle of hot baths for his burns.”
“He soldiered on, and after a month he was finally discharged from the hospital. Luckily, no limbs were amputated. He was, however, left with a partial left ear and layers of skin grafts over his neck, arms, legs, and entire chest. The stories he told about his recovery and the excruciating pain involved were crushingly gut wrenching. But he survived, and eventually thrived again. He made his way out to Los Angeles in 1982 and got right back up on his motorcycle.”
Gash was an intimidating sight coming at you on a Harley with his bald head, scarred neck and burnt-off ear. Underneath, however, he was charming, charismatic, non-superficial and made friends wherever he went. Vai was inspired to bring Gash into a recording studio and see if he could sing over the biker tracks that had been demoed. The results were stunning. Gash was an amazing singer with a soaring, fearless voice with the power to rock a stadium. Sadly, that would never come to pass. On September 7th, 1998, Vai received the news that his friend had died in another motorcycle crash. Disheartened, he put these songs on the shelf and went on with his life and career.
Vai finally decided to put the record out and all who hear it will be better for it. It’s an absolutely killer rock and roll record that shows off Steve’s rhythm guitar and songwriting skills, as well as his ability to let go of the musical trappings that make up his style and play simple, heartfelt guitar parts with the restraint of a band member. Gash is the real star, though, putting down vocals that blaze with glory.
The opener “In The Wind” is a speed-inducing guitar and piano rocker that will get you a ticket if you’re not careful. Sombrotto’s vocals are explosive and immediately engaging, as is his overall presence on the mic. Vai’s playing and tone are heavenly and provide Gash with everything needed to blow minds in this song-focused setting.
“Busted” sits on a mighty double-bass drum part that could push an 18-wheeler down the road. Vai riffs, swells, and squeals on guitar while Gash smashes the vocals. The guitar playing here and throughout the album is blues-influenced, deep in the pocket, and exactly the kind of thing that regularly came blasting out of car stereos back in the 70s.
Highlights abound and you don’t want to miss gems like “She Saved My Life Tonight” and “New Sensation.” Each track shows how well Vai and Gash vibes together and it’s hard not to speculate where this project might have gone had life taken a different path. Still, Vai / Gash is an outstanding record we never knew about that we now get to hear. Kudos to Steve Vai for putting it out and telling the world about his friend.
Pre-order Vai/Gash Here
“She Saved my Life Tonight”
Steve Vai website