There aren’t many listeners aware of classic and mainstream hard rock over the last thirty or forty years who aren’t aware of Sammy Hagar. From his earliest days as lead vocalist of Montrose through his expansive-and-still-going solo career to his in-the-spotlight residence as post-David Lee Roth Van Halen frontman and his subsequent formation of cantina-rock outfit The Waboritas and blues-jam quartet Chickenfoot, Hagar is a rarity not just for his long-in-the-tooth musical tenure but for his ability to do what he does best while implementing just enough change with each new offering to freshen things up for performer and listener alike. His upcoming release, “Sammy Hagar & Friends” is a tip of the proverbial hat to all the familiar roads he’s trod before seasoned with a fun mixture of all the styles that have inspired him along the way. And he got a little help from his friends. All of them.
“And Friends” is a collection of snapshots, a Blues, Rock, Zydeco, and Island Music scrapbook that defines a lifestyle and invites the listener to flip through. Each song is a portrait—some original, some a cover—of rocking and relaxation, loving, hard partying, and resultant degrees of an extrovert’s inevitable introspection, seeking and finding the great among the grandiose or the gaudy. The troops are all here, each one another spice in a recipe undeniably Sammy, and the culmination of their collaboration is top-notch.
Right away, I got a vivid down-home feeling from the rocking-chair stomp of “Winding Down”, the dobro and acoustic handiwork of prolific Bay Area guitarist Dave Zirbel (The Mother Truckers, The Cowlicks) a natural counterpart to the whiskey-burnt shared vocals of Blues/World Music icon Taj Mahal. “Not Going Down”, featuring Hagar’s Montrose and solo-career cohorts—bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi—as rhythm section, feels like a fallback to his old catalog or something Bad Company punctuated by lap-steel guitar and background choir vocals.
Then, the disc gets really interesting.
Track three is an excellent, roadhouse-styled take on Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” as seen through the Chickenfoot lens. That band’s rhythm section, Michael Anthony of Van Halen and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, lays down some serious bottom-end beef while Journey-man Neal Schon does his best Billy Gibbons guitar spin. Swap trademark Z.Z. Top beard for soul-patch, though: Schon’s blistering solo work is 70s/80s excess amidst the bendy blues riffs and fits here perfectly.
“Father Sun” is an acoustic-electric Creole worship song paying tribute to sunlight & glory with standout textural work from virtuoso Zydeco accordionist Andre Thierry and Waboritas axeman Victor Johnson. The song’s also a great play on words: Hagar’s painter-photographer-hot rodder-singer son Aaron shares vocal duties with his dad; it had me listening through the lyrics again for whenever they went beyond metaphor.
Other tracks of note: “Bad on Fords and Chevrolets”, a Texas boogie with guest vocals/co-writing credit by Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn and Honky-Tonk piano by Sophisticated Dudes keymaster Austin “Audie” Delone; “All We Need is an Island”, a short-but-lively love song duet featuring Nancy Wilson of Heart and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart; and “Going Down”, a bonus studio-take of an oft-covered Blues standard that, between rare walking-bass work from Chickenfoot’s Anthony and an awesome repeat performance by Neal Schon, proves to be one of the disc’s most solid cuts.
There are—unfortunately—a couple of glaring weak spots.
“Knockdown Dragout”, another hard-hitting reminder of Sammy’s fondness for boxing and rock guitar—here given form by guest solo-shredder Joe Satriani—is indeed hard, but it feels a bit uninspired. The album’s first single is something of a rehashed “Mas Tequila”, full of all-too familiar floor-tom/guitar unisons and call-and-response vocals (HEY! HEY!). Add to that lyrics that are a bit trite and Kid Rock sharing the mic, and you have one more raised middle finger, one more Nickelback-styled banner to bad-assery that doesn’t really need to be here: We all know Mr. Hagar likes to party. This just seemed a trifle redundant.
The other unnecessary was along the same lines: a molasses-slowed cantina cover of “Margaritaville”. While Jimmy Buffett’s narrator is wasting away, this version of the relaxation anthem left me feeling a bit the same way, threatening to take the legs out of the remainder of the album. It was a good effort; mariachi-styled guitar riffing and a little flair from Santana percussionist Karl Perazza do much to infuse the song with the energy that it demands. Still, it’s a leisurely song fun in nature that here is slowed to a “pub” crawl. And did I mention it’s unnecessary? Guest vocalist Toby Keith—who I’m pretty certain covered this himself—had me wondering when Willie Nelson was gonna jump on stage to smoke weed with him. The overall result? Further proof positive that we all know the Red Rocker likes to party (and also that this song maybe shouldn’t be covered without having Buffett do a cameo)….
“Sammy Hagar and Friends” isn’t perfect. Having hit my teens in the middle of Sammy’s “Van Hagar” days, I can say that vocally, he’s not quite at one-hundred percent here, not quite pushing himself to what he’s still proven he’s capable of in the years since. In this case, though, this observation is beside the point. The man’s sixty-five years old, but he’s still got plenty of chops, and while it may be his name on the disc, he’s just the Master of Ceremonies, the Capo of Cabo Wabo, the goateed impresario hosting the party, yo. What makes “And Friends” work isn’t just the man and voice tying the gang together but the reason the gang piled into their buses, convertibles, and side-carred motorbikes: To go out and have a good time together. To remind the people at the other end of the speaker or earbud that there’s honestly no “one way to rock” and that you’re never too old to paint your town Rocker Red. Play it again, Sam.