At Your Service

Sammy Hagar & The Circle

Mailboat Records, 2015

http://www.redrocker.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/15/2016

It feels less than coincidental that grown-older-but-not-up rocker Sammy Hagar’s most recent musical venture came out on Mailboat Records, an imprint founded by Mr. Margaritaville himself Jimmy Buffett. After all, over the past 20 years Hagar has steadily transformed himself into the hard rock version of Buffett the lifestyle merchant, expanding his Cabo Wabo bar-and-restaurant empire across the nation, hawking his own custom brand of rum, and just lately publishing a “cooking and partying” book called, naturally, Are We Having Any Fun Yet?

Because that’s what Sammy is really all about—fun. Craft matters, but it’s not nearly as important a core value on Planet Hagar as enthusiasm. As for subtlely, well, that’s a dirtier word than any of the miscellaneous swears that senior citizen Hagar drops on this live album’s amiable dad-bro between-song patter.

The Circle is Hagar’s latest configuration in a series of nostalgia-rich late-career ventures by the Red Rocker that allow him to surf his own huge back catalog, dating back to his 1973 debut as lead singer on Montrose’s landmark self-titled album. This particular configuration—which includes his solo band guitarist Vic Johnson, ex-Van Halen pal-for-life bassist-vocalist Mike Anthony, and son-of-John / latter-day Led Zeppelin drummer Jason Bonham—allows him to go even further back to the source material and inspiration for much of that initial Montrose album: early Led Zeppelin.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The results captured on this two-disc live album are in some ways predictable and in others surprising. Of course they mine the Van Hagar years heavily—they’ve got half the band right there on stage already. And the Hagar solo tunes are pretty much the ones you’d expect (because the world really needed yet another rendition of “I Can’t Drive 55”… um, dude, speed limit went back to 70 like 30 years ago). But they also cover four Zeppelin tunes and throw a few seconds of a fifth (“Moby Dick”) into Bonham’s solo spotlight (each player gets one, and the best thing I can say about that is they’re all brief).

The genuine surprises are two. Hagar solo sideman Johnson, called upon to play parts originated by Ronnie Montrose, Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page all in one show, pretty much nails it. He’s got Van Halen’s patented flash-and-trash style down, and does a respectable and respectful job of mimicking Page’s tone and parts on the Zep tunes. Surprisingly, the only song that trips him up is “Rock Candy,” where the tone isn’t quite there and the changes he makes to Montrose’s parts don’t do the song any favors.

The second surprise is the way Hagar steps up on the Zeppelin tracks. Hagar’s low-key surfer dude vibe sometimes translates to lazy/sloppy singing on his own songs, and that happens again here at times, but he clearly has too much respect for the Zeppelin tunes to pull that shit on them. He sounds focused and determined on sharp renditions of “Good Times Bad Times” and “When The Levee Breaks,” and while he can’t compete with Plant’s vocal gymnastics on “Whole Lotta Love,” he gives it everything he’s got.

Regarding the Van Halen material: tunes like “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Best Of Both Worlds” and “Right Now” are among the punchiest, most entertaining pop-metal produced between 1985 and 1991, and this quartet is more than capable of delivering the goods on them. And: I used to call Chris Squire the Most Valuable Harmony Vocalist in Rock, which he absolutely was, but Michael Anthony surely makes the top ten.

The weak link here is Hagar’s own solo material. The tight, angry “Little White Lie” is decent, but “There’s Only One Way To Rock,” “Heavy Metal” and “I Can’t Drive 55” are 15 minutes of the goofiest, most predictable cheese ever sliced on stage by a sixty-something rocker.

There’s nothing revelatory here—it’s really just four skilled veterans of the hard rock scene playing around in their clubhouse, with 6,000 fans along for the ride—but At Your Service does offer abundant fun and a few surprises, notably how well the quartet’s Zeppelin covers hold up. 

Rating: B

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© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Mailboat Records, and is used for informational purposes only.