Let’s see: Van Halen + Red Hot Chili Peppers + Guitar God = Chickenfoot?
The title might have been conceived as a joke, a light-hearted way to downplay the fact that a collaboration between four critically acclaimed musicians is likely to garner criticism from skeptics. Well, in some ways the joke is on us, as the title that ex-Van Halen members Michael Anthony and singer Sammy Hagar, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s drummer Chad Smith and guitarist Joe Satriani chose is a complete 360 from their self-titled debut.
Unfortunately — even though I’m old enough to remember Sammy Hagar as a pretty successful solo artist (post-Montrose and pre-Van Halen) — Cabo Wabo, the quirky name of his restaurants, came into mind when thinking about the potential thematic musical landscape of Chickenfoot. Is he going to turn into a Jimmy Buffet-esque character, creating music to appease the inebriated American college kids that flock to his flagship restaurant in Mexico? Would the music be just as wacky as his tacky Hawaiian shirts and unruly blond hair? For the love of god, is he going to start singing about Tequila?
Opener “Avenida Revolution” introduces a brief flourish of Satriani-penned fretting and digresses on the drug violence in Tijuana, bolstering the tone of the album as hard, heavy and serious. Hagar sings passionately in anger and perhaps with a bit of contempt. His voice is just as strong as the lyrics that give a glimpse into serious issues (“Import, transport, exportation/Rights of nations, exploited salvation”) that Hagar must feel are often ignored by the media.
Anthony shines on bass, but comes out stronger vocally, providing exceptionally strong harmonies. While Hagar and Anthony have had a long working relationship, there is something unique here, especially on “Soap on a Rope”, where you start to believe that perhaps Anthony’s vocal skills, while always prominent, were completely underrated during his tenure in Van Halen. Blame Van Halen’s mixing, but throughout Chickenfoot, Anthony is distinctively present. While “Rope”‘s sultry swing hails from Satriani’s musical expertise in jazz, Smith’s drumming is just as responsible.
Leaving behind the funk-punk rock orgy of the Peppers, Smith decided to stay heavy here, dusting off some more classic rock beats instead. While his trademark drumming pops up from time to time, as it does on “Oh Yeah”, where all of the players give a brief nod to their respected past projects, Smith keeps the band on new, unfamiliar roads and makes it clear that they are doing something new. But, most importantly, that they’re on this journey together. Take, for example, a track like “Get it Up”, where all of the members branch out in odd fashions. What keeps them together is Smith’s heavy, rhythmic balance, which gives each member a chance to compliment one another, rather than trying to follow a more well-known frontman or guitarist. This must be a relief for Hagar and a blessing for Anthony, who both suffered respectively in Van Halen.
Therein lies the idea behind Chickenfoot. In the band’s bio, Satriani, who despite having a successful solo career as an instrumentalist, says that he had always wanted to be in a big rock band, perhaps wanting to compliment instead of succumbing to the pressure of always being the signature player. With Chickenfoot, he plays with the band and, surprisingly, does not overpower the other musicians. This idea comes to mind on the beautiful and introspective, “Learning to Fall.” Here one gets the feeling that Satch is making a concerted effort not to overshine his new band mates. That’s not to say his trademark velvety tones don’t surface at all. They’re just less flashy, more or less accenting the music than defining it. That’s quite the hurdle for a guitarist of his caliber, and for the most part, an impossible one to attempt and complete. Just ask Slash, or listen to Velvet Revolver and find out yourself.
Let’s be earnest, Chickenfoot is definitely a hard rock album. Already, critics and fans have labeled it a classic and, to some extent, they might be right. It’s fun, it’s ballsy, and it’s honest. The quartet signifies the best of what happens when four talented musicians, who have nothing to prove, come together, leaving their egos at the door to simply create an album that satisfies them. It all draws back to our mother’s redundant requests: Don’t judge a book by its cover. The same applies here. Don’t judge a band by its line up, even if they all happen to be deeply ingrained in rock n’ roll history and have been absolutely disappointing as of late. Surprise, Surprise.