Sammy Hagar & The Circle. Red Rocks. 09.05.16
Months of anticipation led up to the first concert I chose to attend. A few other shows had come before, but as much as I enjoyed seeing Stevie Nicks at Cal Expo and Crystal Gayle at a dinner show in Lake Tahoe, I wasn’t there by choice. I didn’t wait in line for those tickets. Van Halen’s OU812 stop at Arco Arena was something else altogether. Sure, my buddy’s older brother made us very aware we weren’t going to be seeing ‘the real Van Halen’, but his harsh words did nothing to calm the anxiety and adrenaline pulsating through my 11-year-old body. It was November 21st, 1988 and we made the drive down to Sacramento from Auburn in a green van owned by my friend’s father. He had agreed to chaperone us to the show, but he did so somewhat begrudgingly. I still remember him sitting firmly in his seat, with earplugs providing a layer of safety, when Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers took the stage. We were in 5th grade; we were wearing matching black t-shirts we had just purchased at the merch booth; and we were losing our shit. The show opened with Sammy’s “There’s Only One Way to Rock” and continued on through much of 5150 and OU812, before ending with an encore of covers…one of which was Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. We rode the high from that show into our classroom the next day (still wearing our shirts from the night before) and if I remember correctly, those concert tees faded long before the memories did.
Flash forward 28 years. I am leaning against my tailgate in the Lower South Lot at Red Rocks, drinking a beer and waiting for a friend to arrive. Exhaustion has set in after an extremely long weekend. This will be my fifth night in a row seeing live music. Thursday was spent at the Soiled Dove with Sean McConnell as he passed through on his way to Nashville to play the Grand Ole Opry. Friday was spent under the punishing sun watching Wolf Parade and various punk rock bands at Riot Fest. The rest of the weekend was spent with friends and family (and The Killers and Duran Duran and Stevie Wonder) at the Jas Experience in Snowmass. I am now as old as our chaperone was that night in Sacramento and, at this particular moment, I am feeling much older. Anticipation has been replaced with fatigue and the troubling truth of tomorrow morning.
Flash forward 1 hour. I am in the 5th row (with earplugs in, but definitely not sitting firmly in my seat) when Sammy takes the stage. The Van Halen brothers are nowhere to be found, but with Michael Anthony by his side, The Red Rocker busts into “There’s Only One Way to Rock” — just as he did almost three decades ago. I immediately regress into that 11-year-old kid again. All feelings of fatigue vanish, along with any thoughts about the price I will pay when the sun rises. Mr. Hagar, who looks as if he hasn’t aged a day this century, takes us back to the very beginning with “Rock Candy”. I think to myself ‘if he can perform like this at 68 years old, the least I can do is be alive enough to enjoy it.’
The Circle consists of Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Jason Bonham, and Vic Johnson. The idea behind the band is to get out there and have some fun performing songs from the various projects that came previously. You are just as likely to hear a Van Hagar song as you are a Montrose or Led Zeppelin song. “Good Times Bad Times” was followed by “Poundcake”, which was followed by “I Can’t Drive 55”. The original music videos added a depth to the nostalgia surrounding the show, but props weren’t really necessary when the band sounded so good. We were extremely close to the speakers, yet everything came through crystal clear. With the exception of a technical problem with Michael Anthony’s mic during “Runaround”, it was literally one of the best sounding shows I’ve seen all summer.
“Everybody doing good? What a beautiful place. What a beautiful night. It smells good in here!”
The performance was being filmed for AXS TV, so there were times with Sammy was playing for the cameras, but the overall feeling was that everyone in the band was having a great time. Crowd interaction was at all-time high, as both Sammy and Michael Anthony made an effort to work all sides of the stage. There were multiple occasions when they would actually touch those in the front row; high fiving, toasting with red Silo cups filled with tequila, or signing t-shirts and other paraphernalia. The comradery between the musicians was pretty incredible. It really was like seeing a bunch of best friends performing music together…and they all did each other’s songs justice.
It is impossible to talk about the show without mentioning the elephant in the room though. With so many Van Halen songs being performed, it was hard not to compare the performance to the one that happened on the same stage last year. The latest incarnation of the band that Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony used to be a part of is polarizing, to say the least. I strongly believe Van Halen’s best material was released between 1978 and 1984, but I also can’t stand David Lee Roth anymore. He is a complete jackass and his very presence on a stage ruins everything. That is why I had this to say about his performance last year…
David Lee Roth was a douchebag. No matter how good the setlist; no matter how amazing the crowd; no matter how iconic the venue…David Lee Roth had to make it all about him. It didn’t matter to me that he wasn’t pitch perfect. And I wasn’t judging him for having to catch his breath once in a while. The man is 60 years old and he was running around doing split kicks at 6,400 feet for Christ’s sake! What I do blame him for is sucking the energy out of the set with his tedious tales of all the cool things he used to do when he was cool. I understand it’s all rock star shtick, but he just came off as an aging cheesedick who didn’t understand that he was the real joke. Why he couldn’t just stick to singing and dancing is beyond me, but at the end of the day he demolished the vibe more than a couple tracks from A Different Kind of Truth could have done.
The Circle is not Van Halen, obviously. Vic Johnson is an amazing guitarist, but he will never be Eddie. And Sammy Hagar is still not completely over the breakup. In an interview with MTV in 1997, he said the song “Little White Lie” was about “Ed and Alex Van Halen” spreading lies about him. When asked if he would ever move past his anger, his response was “I don’t know, I won’t tell this story over and over again. After this tour, it’s the last time I’ll talk about it.” That was twenty years ago, yet he told the story again last night. In his best Robert Johnson impression, he sang the blues — “somebody talking shit about you, sayin’ shit that just ain’t true…”
Luckily for us, he didn’t dwell on the past long. Sammy might not do kick splits at 6,400 feet, but he can sing like motherfucker. He still sounds incredible. Much, much better than Roth does these days. He also doesn’t make it all about himself. He’s got nothing to prove. When Sammy Hagar changes the lyrics from “I need some sympathy” to “I need some pussy,” it comes across as funny, especially since most of his banter is about how old he’s become. When Roth talks about sixsomes in his hotel room, it just comes across as creepy. It’s like he doesn’t understand how old he’s become. When young, bikini-clad girls are bouncing up and down on the beach above The Circle during “Mas Tequila”, it’s no worse than a beer commercial. When Roth talks about making sex tapes with young girls, it’s worse than pathetic.
That’s enough about that though. No matter what side of the fence you fall on, I think it’s safe to say Sammy Hagar & The Circle are a great band. I think it’s also safe to say Van Hagar had some of the best ballads. “Right Now” and “Why Can’t This Be Love” were both incredible last night, as was an acoustic rendition of “Dreams”. “Heavy Metal” really got the crowd going with images of monster trucks, drag racing, old-school mosh pits, and even some footage of Pussy Riot performing. And while I would have preferred “Cabo Wabo” to “Mas Tequila”, it was fun in a ‘Jimmy Buffet goes hard in Baja’ sorta way. There really wasn’t a bad song on the setlist all night. Songs aside, Sammy’s energy really made the show as well. Whether he was interacting with the crowd, singing the praises of each member of the band, or staring up at the monoliths in awe, the man gave the impression that there was no place in the world he would rather be. I realize that might seem like a small thing (or even an act), but after seeing close to a thousand live shows, I have come to believe in a direct correlation between the enthusiasm of the artist and that of the crowd.
“No wonder this is the best venue on Earth. Holy fuck!”
Sammy performed at Red Rocks back in ’95 or ’97, but admitted to not really remembering it. That led into a story about a recent conversation with Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Nielsen was telling him all about the show they played at the venue with Heart and Joan Jett last week. There were insane storms that night, but Nielson just wouldn’t stop talking about how cool it was. “We were playing Gonna Raise Hell and there was lightning and hell in the sky!” Sammy was laughing about how Nielson was still high from it a week later. He was also hoping he’d feel the same way in a week’s time. Despite the perfect weather and lack of lightning, I’m sure it won’t be a night he’ll be forgetting anytime soon.
Instead of an encore – “my old ass doesn’t want to walk down those stairs just to walk back up them again” – they decided to do it “Cabo Wabo style”, which essentially meant they would keep playing until they were officially done. It also meant one of the best ballads of the whole night, “When It’s Love”. That one brought me back to the arena in ’88 once again. And although the lighters were replaced with cell phones in the air, the song sounded as good as it did all those years ago. The night wrapped up with “Rock and Roll”, as it did in Sacramento, and then the band took a bow.
“Red Rocks truly rocks! Best venue in the world! Thank you for letting us do this!”
There was no opening act, so even though they played for almost two hours, the show was over before 10:00pm. There have been many nights when that would have disappointed me, but it was the perfect time on this particular Labor Day. I was home by 10:30pm and in bed at a decent hour. I had been so exhausted earlier in the evening, but I found sleep hard to come by. It wasn’t quite the feeling I had when I was in Elementary school (it wasn’t quite as intense), but there was something going on. The countless shows over the years have desensitized me in a way that won’t allow for that childlike amazement anymore, but that didn’t stop the songs from replaying in my head long after the lights had gone down over the venue. It also didn’t stop those songs from stimulating memories from long ago – from a time when all I had to worry about was getting to school the next morning and getting my homework done — back when the worst thing in the world was being born too late to ever see ‘the real Van Halen’. It’s funny how things come full circle. Funny enough to make me laugh out loud as I finally drifted into the place where dreams are made.
There’s Only One Way to Rock
Good Times Bad Times
I Can’t Drive 55
Little White Lie
When the Levee Breaks
Why Can’t This Be Love
Finish What Ya Started
When It’s Love
Rock and Roll