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Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reviews: Sammy Hagar & The Circle, Howlin Rain

Sammy Hagar & The Circle: At Your Service (Mailboat Music)

We here at the Musipedia don't really review live albums all that often but this was a massive exception. As many of you may know Sammy Hagar made his name as the second singer of Van Halen, he was the man that brought them into the nineties and skilfully stepped into the void left by Diamond David Lee Roth. However Hagar is much more than that; he was also the first (and arguably most famous) singer of classic underrated rock band Montrose, he has a successful solo career for many years, he formed supergroup Chickenfoot with Joe Satriani, Chad Smith and VH's Michael Anthony and he is shrewd businessman creating his own brand of tequila and his own restaurants/bars. A man of many talents then but one who is obsessed by music, his previous band Chickenfoot had run it's course due to the commitments of Satch and Chad Smith so Hagar was left at somewhat of a loose end, here was his chance to record and album featuring some of his best friends in the business, this came to fruition in the album Sammy Hagar & Friend album which saw him hook up with guitar virtuoso Vic Johnson. Since this album, Hagar has found some kindred spirits and he has formed another band this time called The Circle.

The band is formed by longtime cohort Michael Anthony on bass, Vic Johnson on guitar, Hagar on vocals (obviously) and behind the kit one Mr Jason Bonham (a man who is no stranger to a supergroup himself). This album is taken from various dates on their US tour and while it shows the band in full flight showing all of their collected skills it also is a picture of four guys having a great time, the production is slick, the crowd is not too intrusive, the performance is mesmerising, Hagar is humble yet fierce frontman and while you do get a bass solo (mercifully short) and a guitar solo (also short) all can be forgiven by the tracklist that includes a drum solo that breaks into Bonham's Dad's magnum-opus Moby Dick. Yes it is indeed the track listing that is the best part of this album never has the word 'greatest hits' been so apt. Opening with Hagar's own There's Only One Way To Rock the band kick off with full steam ahead, however when this is followed by Rock Candy from Montrose, Good Times Bad Times from Led Zeppelin and Poundcake from Unlawful Carnal Knowledge then you know you are in for a good time. The set brings in Zep classics like When The Leveee Breaks, Rock & Roll and the perennial Whole Lotta Love on which Hagar does his best Plant impression while Johnson and Anthony are Page and JPJ respectivly, through some Hagar era Van Halen tracks like When It's Love, Finish What Ya Started, Right Now, The Best Of Both Worlds and Why Can't This Be Love and a sprinkling of Hagar solo stuff with Can't Drive 55 and Heavy Metal.

These well known rock songs combine perfectly with a band that have passion and skill, special kudos to Vic Johnson for having Page's feel and EVH's flair, to create a live album that makes you wish you were there. There are some failings in Hagar's voice at times but this is live album capturing the band in raw environment not with studio overdubs or trickery. A passionate, powerful album that has seen these legends come full Circle (although I still think Bonham's suggestion of Red Zeppelin would be better). A must for fans of The Red Rocker, Zep, Van Halen and indeed rock music itself! 10/10

Howlin Rain: Mansion Songs (Easy Sounds)

Howlin Rain's last album The Russian Wilds was widely critically acclaimed, the band are the creation of Ethan Miller frontman and guitarist for the band, the album was released on a major label and despite the critical plaudits, as Miller puts it himself he "walked out of the back end of my major label run and the first 9 years in Howlin Rain with no band, no label, no foreseeable immediate move forward" however he also goes on to say that he had "a figurative suitcase full of songs, my talent, invigorated by having nothing else to lose, exhausted by the bullshit and grind of the music business, this musical life, and all it's absolute bullshit and fucked tests" that inevitably made him cynical but not bitter. The Russian Wilds has the honour of being one of my most played albums so I was very excited to see what Miller had up his sleeve next. To his latest record then, apparently the first of a supposed trilogy, Mansion Songs which was made with a handful of musicians and continues the last album's Americana infused Californian rock vibe while adding new elements and stripping it back with more country and folk additions.

Big Red Moon opens proceedings with a Nashville twang, sounding like it could have come off Blackberry Smoke album, all blustering mouth harp and slide guitar (both coming from Miller) topped with Miller's full throated howl and Southern honey croon which is part Springsteen, part Young, part Petty with the same kind of delivery of an ageing punk rocker although Miller himself evokes the spirit of The Big Lebowski's The Dude or a hard rocking Rabbi. This song is an upbeat whiskey drinking song that hides the dark subtext, a theme that continues on Meet Me In The Wheat which could have featured on a Outlaw Country record with it's "Hallelujah" refrain and pounding electric organ. Miller handles most of the instrumentation but he has acquired some top level musicians to help him out with Meg Baird being the one that reoccurs regularly and is most notable by providing drums, acoustic guitars and vocals; most notably on the haunting Coliseum which has all the the hallmarks of a self-loathing, emotion filled track from a Roger Water's album as Miller whispers his vocals as Baird floats in and out of the song built on just two acoustic guitars providing great juxtaposition from the two preceding tracks. The New Age is a song that speaks of redemption and reinvention think a folky version of U2 driven by a viola and a double bass, this song passes by quickly resetting things for the organ drenched 70's stomp of Wild Bush a song that would sound great blasting out of an open top Chevy in 1970's Harlem.

For an album with only 8 tracks this album is a grower after repeated listens it opens up into something else entirely, there are immediate elements but on the slower more atmospheric songs like Restless they take a few spins to really grab you. This is a good thing however as it means you have to really listen to this album, I suggest playing it through a set of headphones, or outside as the sun sets. Everything on Restless is numbed and smothered leaving just Miller's broken vocals to tell the tale of a man descending into madness, Lucy Fairchild is a song of redemption and morality set to an Elton John-like backing full of driving piano and orchestral swell in the finale. This final part of the album is slower burning affair than the opening part which could be due to the trio aspect creeping in, this is only part one of the story that leaves you in a dreamlike state on Ceiling Fan filled with references to the most creative directors, musicians, artists and writers and driven by one acoustic guitar hook, whispered train of thought vocals and a choral chorus before bursting into a crescendo at the end that sees guitars fizz behind the Floydian track that imitates The Walls hope filled finale. I do hope the second part of this trilogy comes soon as yet again Ethan Miller has shown why Howlin Rain are the thinking man's rock band, intelligent lyricism merging with deft considered playing to create a vibe that is both nostalgic and fresh. A truly fine piece of music yet again 10/10

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