Whenever I see an album title that includes the words “and friends,” I’m a tad suspicious. I wonder if the release is essentially a side project by an artist putting out a collection of throwaways while he or she seeks out a new creative direction. I also wonder if the various tracks are going to sound like a unified project or an assembly of diverse songs touching a variety of musical bases. For a number of reasons, Sammy Hagar’s new brew opens the door to such questions.
Sammy Hagar and Friends demonstrates, if nothing else, that the “Red Rocker” has not only accumulated quite a few friends over his career, but many of very long standing. In fact, you’d think everybody is his friend except for the Van Halen brothers. Bringing them all together on one album, not surprisingly, results in an album that is about half a cohesive program and about half an assembly of tunes that sound like a menu of buffet choices that don’t belong on the same plate.
The set opens on a very promising note with “Winding Down,” where Hagar shares ballsy, bluesy, belting vocals with the legendary Taj Mahal. The hard blues continues with longtime friends Bill Church (bass) & Denny Carmassi (drums) from Hagar’s Montrose days, helping the gospel groove of “Not Going Down.” The track is also the first to feature guitarist Vic Johnson, a member of Hagar’s longtime supporting band, The Waboritas, along with the backing vocals of Claytoven Richardson, Sandy Griffith & Omega Rae. That trio of singers is even more spiritual on “Personal Jesus,” with guitar from Journey’s Neal Schon (who worked with Hagar in the ’80s supergroup HSAS), Van Halen’s Michael Anthony on bass, and drums by Chickenfoot’s Chad Smith, also a veteran of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Then, Hagar moves away from the blues theme to get into New Orleans-style zydeco on “Father Sun,” which features accordion by Andre Thierry, mandolin from James DePrato, and lap steel guitar by Hagar himself. He also brings on board another Waboritas stalwart, bassist Mona Gnader. Ready for some old style Hagar hard rock? That’s “Knockdown Dragout,” with Carmassi on drums, and Kid Rock joining Hagar on the “everybody join in” party tune with another Chickenfoot alum, Joe Satriani, who as usual, kicks out a blistering guitar solo.
From this point forward, the pickings are going to appeal to very divergent audiences. I doubt if many listeners will favorably compare Hagar’s version of “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” with Bob Seger’s original versions (studio or live). I don’t know about you, but hearing “Bad On Fords and Chevrolets,” written by Ronnie Dunn and Ray Wylie Hubbard, seems a bit strange with Dunn (of Brooks and Dunn fame) singing with Hagar about how he was influenced by the Stones, Zeppelin, and ZZ Top. You won’t hear the evidence here.
Strangest of all is Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” with Hagar harmonizing with Toby Keith. No, oddest of all is the gentle “All We Need Is an Island,” with Hagar dueting with Heart’s Nancy Wilson and supported by Dave Zirbel (Pedal Steel & Tahitian Ukulele) and Mickey Hart (drums). What’s next: Sammy Hagar, Barry Manilow, and the Tijuana Brass?
If you buy the standard version of the disc, the final song returns to real rock and roll with a live in-studio take of Don Nix’s classic “Going Down” as jammed by Hagar with Schon (guitar), Anthony (bass), and the reliable Smith (drums). It’s an okay number, but you’re not going to forget the versions from Jeff Beck or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
If you purchase the deluxe edition, you also get the live bonus track of “Space Station #5,” performed at the Ronnie Montrose Tribute Concert on April 29, 2012, at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Reportedly, that deluxe edition will come packaged in a high-gloss digipak. The deluxe CD/DVD package also includes a “Making of” album documentary with bonus video of the first single, “Knockdown Dragout.”
Whichever edition you choose, Sammy Hagar and Friends is a mixed bag. There’s plenty of rockin’ blues, a few excursions into pop country, along with brief samplings of gospel and a stroll down Bourbon Street. Sammy Hagar and Friends is Sammy Hagar enjoying himself, and he’s more than earned the privilege. After all, half a hot Hagar loaf is better than none.