By Jon Zahlaway / LiveDaily Senior Writer
“Man, my hotel room is bigger than this,” Sammy Hagar quipped shortly after his new supergroup, Chickenfoot, took the stage in the packed and sweltering basement of Cambridge’s Middle East nightclub on Tuesday (5/26)–and, given the multi-platinum rocker/tequila mogul’s tax bracket, he probably wasn’t kidding.
“This is where we all started,” Hagar said, referring to his and his bandmates’ long-ago days of slogging through clubs–and, with a maximum capacity of 575 people, the Middle East has the distinction of being the smallest one that the group will hit during its current outing. “And we’re startin’ over again now–but how ’bout startin’ over again with these motherf—ers, huh?”
The motherf—ers to whom Hagar was referring, of course, are his high-powered bandmates: guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and bassist Michael Anthony, who, like Hagar, is a former member of Van Halen. Suffice to say, the lineup has a bit more name recognition than the average bar band–which explains why the Middle East was packed to the bursting point and sporting a room temperature that easily cleared the 100-degree mark.
The quartet put on an awesome display of musicianship while road-testing a batch of down-and-dirty blues-rock originals that made very clear the reason why the four veterans feel compelled at this late stage in their respective careers to try getting another group off the ground. The new music is, quite simply, among the best work any of them have ever done.
In recent years, Hagar’s concerts with his now-on-hiatus solo band, The Waboritas, were purposely staged as reasonable facsimiles of what it’s like to spend a tequila-soaked night watching Hagar and his cohorts jam at the singer’s Mexican nightclub, The Cabo Wabo Cantina. During those affairs, Hagar carved out a niche for himself as heavy-metal’s answer to Jimmy Buffett while working through a setlist largely comprised of songs that first surfaced years ago.
A Chickenfoot show is not that.
Despite its impressive pedigree, the group rolled out only a single song from its respective members’ pre-Chickenfoot arsenal (“Bad Motor Scooter,” a ’70s-era Montrose cut that is the first song Hagar ever wrote), and spent the rest of the time tearing through material from the group’s forthcoming, self-titled debut, which hits stores June 5.
In Chickenfoot, Hagar is not the center of gravity around which the rest of the band orbits; he is one star in a constellation of four equally bright lights.
Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t stand out; the 61-year-old singer has somehow managed to slow down the aging process to the extent that he looks substantially younger and, more importantly, sounds exactly the same as he did during his late-’80s/early ’90s heyday with Van Halen; he still has one of the best voices in rock, and can hit those high notes with as much power as ever.
And speaking of high-register vocals: meet Mr. Michael Anthony, the man whose background harmonies helped define Van Halen’s sound almost as much as that band’s namesake guitarist. In addition to helping Smith shake the room with teeth-rattling bass lines, Anthony served up backing vocals so clean-sounding and spot-on that they would have been first-take keepers in the recording studio. Hearing new music featuring his and Hagar’s voices together again would justify Chickenfoot’s existence in and of itself.
No such justification is needed, however, because Chickenfoot’s other half makes the band a one-of-a-kind rock juggernaut that truly lives up to its “supergroup” billing.
Smith, known for his funk-infused output with the Chili Peppers, was a monster. The tall and lanky percussionist punished his kit with the kinds of thunderous chops and intricate fills that would cause anyone to question how he and a guy who merely keeps 4/4 time could both be called “drummers.”
Satriani, who has spent most of his career focusing on instrumental pieces that showcase his otherworldly guitar skills, chose well when he decided to shelve his lone-wolf ways and join this band; no one knows more than Hagar and Anthony about making music with a guitar god. Pale-skinned, Turtle-Wax bald and sporting black wraparound shades, the guitarist–who, after years as a solo act, is used to being the main attraction on any stage–looked more than happy to share the spotlight with a trio of equals.
Always impressive on its own, Satriani’s phenomenal six-string work felt more focused and accessible as part of Chickenfoot’s soulful, well-crafted songs. If anything, his prowess stood out even more by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t the sole focus; when he took a solo, it was an event.
An added benefit of seeing four millionaires perform at a hole-in-the-wall club? They can afford really, really good gear and an experienced sound man … which, when combined with their inherent talent, resulted in a positively stellar-sounding show.
After wrapping up a main set comprised of all original material, the group left the stage, but returned a couple moments later for a two-song encore that began with the aforementioned “Bad Motor Scooter.” The sweat-drenched quartet closed things out by covering Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” which was cool and all, but it’s a safe bet that the crowd would have been a lot happier if they had instead dusted off something from Hagar’s tenure with Van Halen. (Chances are they’ll do just that when they mount a full-fledged tour of larger venues in August and September.)
Although faced with almost nothing but songs from a not-yet-released album, the small, tightly packed crowd was jacked up from start to finish–and their enthusiasm went well beyond the simple excitement of seeing four legendary rock stars in such an intimate setting; familiar or not, the impressive batch of raw, ass-kicking music is what fueled the frenzy.