Sammy Hagar came full circle Saturday (June 24) at the Hard Rock Live by performing songs from throughout his solo career and hits he co-wrote while fronting other bands.
But the “Red Rocker” got by with a little help from his friends: Hagar’s current group—the not-so-coincidentally named Circle—features top-notch players from some of his ex-ensembles.
The evening’s oldest number (the salacious “Rock Candy”) came from Hagar’s days in Montrose in the early ‘70s. The most recent tune (2011’s stomping “Big Foot”) derived from his work in the all-star outfit Chickenfoot, whose members also include guitar hero Joe Satriani and drummer Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers).
The rest of the loud, energetic set consisted of Hagar solo anthems and slam-dunk rockers recorded during his first run (1986-1996) with Van Halen.
Bassist Michael Anthony—who served with Hagar in Van Halen, The Other Half, and Chickenfoot—anchors The Circle’s bottom end with the same ferocity and “average guy” charisma he brought to those bands. On this night in Northfield he also brought his signature upper-register Van Halen background vocals to bear on Hagar’s hits, to maximum effect.
Anthony also lent his vocals to three killer Led Zeppelin covers strategically placed throughout the show.
Why the Zep?
Well, mostly because The Circle’s powerhouse percussionist happens to be Jason Bonham—son of Zeppelin’s legendary drummer, John “Bonzo” Bonham. But Hagar’s always been getting the Led out: Fans will recall that Van Halen used to encore with one of their songs on the 5150 tour.
The Circle’s guitarist is Vic Johnson, whose old band The Bus Boys had a 48 Hours movie hit with “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Johnson had his work cut out for him on this occasion—as would anyone daring to fill the shoes once worn by Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, and Jimmy Page. But Johnson has been accurately emulating these hot licks since the ‘90s, when he joined Hagar’s side project The Waboritas (aka the Wabos).
Johnson certainly wielded the right tools for the job: He used a Flying-V guitar on lots of the Hagar material, a white Peavy “Wolfgang” on some of the Van Halen stuff, and a massive Gibson double-neck (six and twelve-string) on the Zeppelin.
But Hagar’s no guitar slouch, either. Part of what made Sammy so much fun on stage with Van Halen was his ability to hold his own on lead (and sometimes face-off against Eddie)—a facet didn’t exist when David Lee Roth led that band.
Hagar—sporting white cargo pants, a red T-shirt (hawking his Beach Bar Rum), and aviator shades—bounded into view at 8:25pm and greeted the sold-out house with 1982 Standing Hampton burner “There’s Only One Way to Rock” and cheeky 1991 Van Halen hit “Poundcake” before introducing his pals:
“Chances are you’ve seen at least one of us someplace before,” said Sammy, referring to The Circle’s prolific pedigree.
“It’s almost impossible to have not seen one of us before!”
Bonham counted in to 1969 Led Zeppelin classic “Good Times, Bad Times” and jokingly teased Hagar when Sammy said he couldn’t understand the drummer’s British accent. Anthony thrummed a Schecter bass (whose amplifiers had a model of the three-headed Godzilla villain King Ghidora perched on top) and poured his peppy pipes into Hagar’s 1984 VOA smash “I Can’t Drive 55” and Van Halen’s 1991 carpe diem ditty “Right Now” (from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge).
Sammy got a little loquacious between tunes. At one point he became so lost in thought he wasn’t able to pop the top on a can of Dr. Pepper.
“Bring me another one of these!” he called to a roadie.
But Hagar fans not only accept his blustery bravado and bonhomie, they adore him for it and would be disappointed if Sammy even seemed for an instant like he wasn’t having a good time.
The best time.
The “Red Heads” certainly weren’t disappointed tonight.
For a band whose constituents are known for their memorable solo spots, The Circle guys didn’t indulge individual spotlights. Thus, there was no droning, Jack Daniels-drenched bass solo from Anthony. No protracted, pulse-pounding percussion showcase by Bonham, and no guitar god shred-fest out of Johnson. But stripping the show of such excess proved a wise move because it forced the musicians to funnel their time and talent into proper songs, like the synth-driven “Why Can’t This Be Love?” (Van Halen) and swampy slide-guitar excursion “When the Levee Breaks” (Led Zeppelin).
Accordingly, the fellows transformed most of those songs from the three-and-a-half minute radio marvels we remember ‘em for into seven and eight minute-long monster jams with tasty instrumental breaks. Even Hagar got in on the action, strapping on a Gibson Flying-V or a red Gibson Les Paul “alien” guitar (with Ferrari strap) to riff out on the head-banging “Heavy Metal” and chicken pickin’ “Finish What Ya Started.”
Hagar’s already written his memoirs (2011’s Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock), but the veteran vocalist shows no signs of slowing down. The shaggy-haired 69-year old has been a rock star and a restaurateur, and amateur boxer and cantina proprietor. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Anthony and Van Halen in 2007. He’s a tequila tycoon, avid cyclist, philanthropist, chef, and incurable hotrod aficionado.
Like hard rock’s answer to Jimmy Buffett, Hagar has successfully bottled and branded his beach bum lifestyle…and concertgoers and tourists have literally been lapping it up for a quarter-century.
Indeed, Hagar modified the title / refrain of his Gary Glitter (“Rock and Roll, Part II”)-inspired 1999 hit “Mas Tequila” to “Mas Mezquila” in honor of his new Santo agave blend.
The mescal / tequila hybrid is a joint venture between Hagar and Maroon 5 friend Adam Levine, to whom Hagar tweeted a “wish you were here” selfie from the Northfield stage.
The Circle wrapped the party with ‘80s uber-ballad “When It’s Love” (Van Halen) and upbeat early ‘70s masterpiece “Rock and Roll” (Led Zeppelin).
The Red Rocker may be fifty years deep into his musical career, but the age-defying Uncle Sam still throws the best pre-July 4th bashes.
The Circle’s 2015 live album At Your Service contains most of the tracks performed Saturday in Ohio. Hagar’s most recent offerings are the oldies-compilation This Is Sammy Hagar: When the Party Started and Chickenfoot: Best + Live.
Hagar’s son Andrew (aka Drew Hagus) opened with a brief acoustic set influenced by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Using only his guitar, harmonic, and voice, the 33-year old entertained with “Half Awake,” “Handicapped Heart,” “Good Enough” (no, not the Van Halen song), and a cover of Mike Ness’ (Social Distortion) “Don’t Think Twice.”
The younger Hagar has toured with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. That experience seeps through in his playing: Andrew used a capo on a couple tunes, and his verses are peppered with the imagery and emotion a more seasoned storyteller.