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Guitar Hero Enters The Light

Eastern spirituality shapes Steve Vai’s latest project

Ambition is something Steve Vai has never lacked. This drive dates back to his days growing up in Carle Place as a young boy devoted to learning composition because he thought music manuscripts looked like art full of a secret language that he wanted to crack. Over time, this passion took him from arranging his first orchestral score while still attending Carle Place High School, to getting hired as a transcriptionist by the late Frank Zappa at the age of 20. Vai’s reputation as one of music’s most gifted guitar players and composers eventually led to his achieving major commercial success as a member of David Lee Roth’s first band and Whitesnake, along with enjoying a solo career that’s earned him a devoted fan base. These aspirations also led to his founding the imprint Favored Nations back in 1999, which is also where he recently released The Story of Light, his eighth studio album. A business move like this was very much in keeping with Vai’s mindset of creatively following his gut no matter what prevailing wisdom might say otherwise.

“Building the label was really an act of independence more than anything else. And I probably got that from Frank [Zappa] because when I was young and impressionable, I was working with [someone who was fiercely independent],” he recounted. “And it worked really well for me. The label, Favored Nations, was really started with my desire to walk the walk and I created this label that I thought had a very fair deal infrastructure. And it was the kind of home that I wanted to create for artists that may not sell a lot of records, but can sell what they can sell and still make enough to eat well and continue making more records.”

The Story Of Life

The Story of Life is no less inspired. Influenced by the guitarist’s longtime interest in Eastern religion and spirituality, these dozen songs are the second installment of an overarching storyline that dates back to Vai’s prior record, 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections. Containing compositions that are musically cohesive, elements of the story are injected into the lyrics and liner notes and the track list(s) are not in chronological order. It is yet another one of the guitarist’s big picture ideas that flies in the face of the music industry’s muddled state of affairs when it comes to selling and distributing recorded music.

“The records have a particular dynamic and I like to have various kinds of songs, so I didn’t want to make a concept record as such,” he pointed out. “So my thought was to release three records that have these contributions and maybe after that, put out a 4-CD box that takes the music from the records and add[s] narratives, put the songs in the right order, make some of the melody songs vocals and make it a cohesive story where you sit and listen from beginning to end and you get the story very accessibly.”

Fans of Vai’s fleet-fingered guitar playing will not be disappointed by songs like the swaggering stomper “Gravity Storm” and the galloping “Racing the World” both of which have enough high-flying fretboard acrobatics to reassure anyone who best remembers the 52-year-old virtuoso belonging to a generation of six-string shredders whose members include Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and the Cacophony duo of Paul Gilbert and Jason Becker.

What’s most impressive are the deliberate curveballs that pop up and include an unorthodox cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s blues standard “John the Revelator” and “No More Amsterdam,” an introspective ballad that finds Vai dueting with fellow Berklee College of Music alum Aimee Mann.

“We actually lived in the same building a couple of doors away from each other. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was best friends with Aimee and was actually in a band with her called The Young Snakes. So through the years, we’ve always had Aimee’s music in the house and I’ve always had a fondness and found a real beauty to it,” he explained. “So I wrote this song, had the track and it’s a very sweet kind of a vocal ballad where this guy looks into a reflecting pond and sees the image of his guardian angel so to speak; the voice of his better judgment. So I wanted to have the song sung by a male and a female. It was within my vocal range and I started to write the lyrics, had the first line and just hit a block. [My wife] Pia told me I should call Aimee. I wasn’t sure if she’d be interested because I have a perception of being something vastly different than what she does. So I sent her the track and she loved it. She wrote all the lyrics, we got together and it was one of the most beautiful collaborations that I’ve ever done.”

While Vai’s best-known brush with the blues came via his cameo as a demonic guitar-wielding soloist opposite Ralph Macchio in the 1986 film Crossroads, his discovery of Johnson on Harry Smith’s critically lauded American Anthology of Folk Music compilation led to his covering the late bluesman’s “John the Revelator.”

“When I first heard ‘John the Revelator,’ I was just so moved. I was hearing all these big guitars and a screaming vocal, so I built the track. When it came time to put a vocalist on it, I thought of singing it but I know my limitations and I would have probably destroyed the song. So I just let the universe tell me what to do,” he recalled. “Oddly enough, the day after I finished the track, I was hosting this event with Sharon Osborne at the Academy, you know N.A.R.A.S., the Grammy folks, and there were all these performers and Beverly McClellan was performing. I was just so captivated by this woman. I thought, there was my singer and I had to get her to do ‘John the Revelator.’ Lucky for me, I got her the track and she liked it. She just nailed it.”

The end result is unlike anything Vai has done before. McClellan’s gut-bucket growl combines with the crunch of the guitarist’s playing, samples from the original recording and a gospel chorus that finds the song teetering between a feeling of sin and salvation. Unorthodox? Yes, but that’s how Steven Siro Vai has preferred it growing up as a shy Italian boy in suburban Long Island.

My Hometown

Vai’s Carle Place childhood is already the stuff of legend. Kid overflowing with passion and unfettered creativity hones technical chops under the tutelage of classmate/guitar teacher/future music legend Joe Satriani. And while all that is true, the unsung hero is the late Bill Westcott, a teacher at Carle Place High School who taught music theory and was hugely influential to both Vai and Satriani.

“When you got into a class with Bill, it wasn’t like you learned this was C and this was D. He was an individualist and looked at each student and figured out where they were at and he’d give them something that would help them figure out where they were at,” he said reverentially. “Bill had me come in every day with a piece of fully manuscripted music that I’d written. Meanwhile, he’d give some other guy something else [to do]. He never thought anybody was better than anybody else, just that they were at different levels of understanding.”

For Vai, his hometown provided a warm and nurturing place in his formative years. And while he was an admittedly timid and insecure kid growing up, his access to joining bands and playing in clubs around Long Island gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams. The fact that swaths of Carle Place High School’s various social groups came out to see him play only emboldened him. And while he now calls California home, this feeling of support and familiarity is with him to this day, prompting him to come home frequently to visit family and friends who still live in the area.

“I love going back and I love my home town,” he proudly stated. “I still have a lot of friends and [very soon], I’m going to be playing Westbury and I’m looking forward to it. The audience is basically half-comped. I think at the end of the show I’m just going to turn the stage around and make the audience my backstage.”

Steve Vai will be appearing at NYCB Theatre @ Westbury on Friday, August 31. For more information, please visit livenation.com or call 800-745-3000.