After a lovely week in Florida last week, I returned home to realize I’d scheduled foot surgery this last Thursday. While it’s been an excruciating experience, at least I’ve been able to lay back, prop my foot up and listen to this new Sammy Hagar & the Circle album, Space Between. This is The Circle’s first studio album, and follows up their debut album, a live record, At Your Service which featured songs from every stage of Hagar’s career and even a Zeppelin cover or two. The only problem with this scenario is I’m not allowed any bourbon during my convalescence. The sacrifices we make…
Sammy Hagar has been around so long we tend to forget what a varied career he’s had. There are certain guys in rock and roll who seem to move from band to band. I always think about Eric Clapton’s career and all the changes he made early on. He was a member of the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and even Derek and the Dominos before going solo. That’s a pretty amazing list of bands. Hell, he was even an unofficial member of the Beatles if you think about it, playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” While not as long, Clapton’s buddy Steve Winwood had a similar storied career with the Spencer Davis Group (“I’m A Man,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'”), Traffic, Blind Faith (with Clapton) and then a long, successful solo career.
Sammy’s list of bands isn’t perhaps as momentous but there are some great bands on this guy’s resume. I’ve touched on this subject before, Sammy Hagar’s Other Bands: Montrose And Chickenfoot. He started in 1973 with one of my favorite overlooked bands, Montrose. I always loved the songs “Rock Candy” and “Bad Motor Scooter.” That’s one of the reasons I liked The Circle’s At Your Service as it saw Sammy revisiting his first band’s songs. From Montrose, Sammy went solo for about 10 years before joining Van Halen. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that the Roth version of VH was the definitive one, but I liked Van Hagar, In Defense of Van Hagar, No Really… Complete With a B&V Van Hagar Playlist. After leaving Van Halen, or being fired depending on who you believe, Hagar formed the Waboritas, named after his famous Cabo club and tequila. Sammy is a B&V guy, always drinking. He ended up forming Chickenfoot with Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Frustrations with the reception Chickenfoot got with the buying public got to Sammy and so he put that band on hold. It wasn’t long before he’d joined forces with his buddy Michael Anthony on bass from Van Halen, Vic Johnson on guitar (from the Waboritas) and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, on drums to form the Circle.
Sammy has said that the name The Circle came to him because this band “takes him full circle back to his beginning.” Zeppelin was a big influence on Montrose, so it makes sense. I read about this album and Sammy was quoted as saying (from Wikipedia), “I’ve got a vibe on what I think this band will be, and it ain’t classic rock, believe it or not. I want to play like American folk rock, with a heavy edge. Remember the Band? Yeah, write lyrics about America and the world.” Lofty goals indeed. I couldn’t help but think, how’s he going to pull that off?
Interestingly enough, they actually do. The album has a heavy rock feel but there’s plenty of acoustic guitar to give it, well, a vibe like the (heavy metal) Band. The star for me on this album is Jason Bonham. His drumming is the root of everything here. The kid definitely inherited some chops from his dad. Vic Johnson’s guitar playing is also really great. He may be one of Sammy’s better guitar foils…although I’ll be the first to admit, I’d have liked to hear more solo’ing from Vic. Michael Anthony is his usual solid self.
The album starts off with two tracks that come across as almost sketches – “The Devil Came to Philly” which almost sounds like an incomplete song, but it sets the acoustic/electric template for the album. It’s followed up by “Full Circle Jam (Chump Change)” which does sound like a jam. The first track that caught my ear was “Can’t Hang.” It’s got that acoustic vibe that Zeppelin could conjure. Michael Anthony’s soaring harmony vocal is a key reason I like this track so much. There is a definite political message in this song, but as usual with Sammy, I don’t know what that message is. “Wide Open Space” almost has a country rock feel to it… it kinda reminds me of what Free did on their album Highway. It also has a soaring chorus courtesy of Anthony. The first half of the album is all lighter, acoustic-ish material, not mellow by any means, but not heavy either.
I really expected something heavier with this line up and eventually The Circle does eventually deliver. Besides the first single, “Trust Fund Baby,” they rock it up on “Free Man.” It’s got a chugging riff and a growling vocal from Hagar. It’s an OK track, but never really grabbed me like “Trust Fund Baby,” its a tad plodding. “Bottom Line” jumps out on, believe it or not, a gliding keyboard, accentuated by Johnson’s guitar riff. It may be the best track here and certainly cheers the proceedings up a bit. “There’s no equity in your bottom line…” True words Sammy, true words. Its interesting to hear Sammy sing about subjects other than chicks. “No Worries” is a, lost my job, living at the beach, not a care in the world kinda song that Sammy does better than anybody. It’s another strong track.
The album ends on two strong, message tracks. “Affirmation” begins “got it all and I’m still not satisfied.” It’s a strong rock song. Sammy clearly has something on his mind. But then the song just fades out. It seems shorter than it’s 3:20. The album ends with a strumming acoustic sing along, “Hey, Hey, (No Greed).” Bonham’s drum drive the track along as Johnson strums and everybody sings along.
It’s rumored that this will be Sammy’s final studio album. I think it’s a flawed record but it’s certainly an interesting one. This was nothing like I’d have expected from Sammy – this is not a classic rock, hard rock album. He’s clearly reaching for something he hadn’t done before and his lyrics are more serious than I’ve ever heard from the Red Rocker. It’s not a bad way to go out… if indeed that’s what Sammy has planned. Solid but not stupendous and definitely worth a listen although sadly I can’t recommend a purchase here.