Great Albums: Chickenfoot

Album: Chickenfoot

Personnel: Sammy Hagar (vocals), Joe Satriani (guitars), Michael Anthony (bass), Chad Smith (drums)

Sometime around ten years ago, I got a little lost.

OK, that’s a little dramatic. Nothing really bad happened in that time period. In fact, a lot of really great things happened. I moved to Arizona, started a new career as a programmer, had two beautiful kids, bought a house, switched jobs a few times, and my wife became a published author. So when I say I got lost, I don’t mean that I was wandering the streets howling at the moon night after night. I mean that something that was previously a huge part of my life – music – took a bit of a backseat to everything else that was new. I stopped playing guitar, almost completely. Stopped going to record stores, and buying CDs every chance I got (mp3s weren’t everywhere yet, and I still like buying CDs). Stopped going to clubs and concerts, seeking out new music. Pretty much just stopped. But so much other stuff was going on that I almost didn’t realize I was missing anything. Life went on, and it was good.

Then one day about three years ago I was surfing around online, and made my way over to Joe Satriani’s site, which even in those days I would visit from time to time. And then I saw this word on one of the pages, “Chickenfoot”. It was a little unclear what it was, but my interest was piqued, so I Googled it. And sure enough, up came the website. And my jaw dropped when I saw the site header – Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, and Chad Smith. In a band. Together. Called Chickenfoot?

At that moment something clicked. Something changed inside me. It was something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Excitement for music. I was crackling with it.

The album wasn’t due to be released for several months yet, but I told everyone who would listen about this “new” band. I put the Chickenfoot logo up as my Instant Messenger avatar. For the next few weeks, I had the same IM conversation with a whole slew of people:

Them: “Chickenfoot? What’s that?”
Me: check this out http://www.chickenfoot.us
(a few seconds pass by…)
Them: “No shit!”
Me: “I know!”

I would then proceed to tell my friend/coworker/random stranger everything I knew about the band, whether they wanted to hear it or not: when the album was coming out, how they got together, if they were going to tour, if I thought it would be good, etc. I did this so often that my friend Brian created a Chickenfoot whiteboard sticker for me (my kids got in on the act too, hence the “Chickenfoot Dad” scrawl and red clay logo).

My wife, being a writer and therefore more than a little perceptive, noticed my excitement too. And bless her, unbeknownst to me, she signed me up for the Chickenfoot Fan Club for my birthday – the first time I’d ever been in a fan club in my life. And I loved it. So basically I was a fan even before the album was released. I just had a feeling it would be something special.

During that time, there was some speculation online that Joe Satriani would have trouble playing in a band setting, having been a solo artist for so long. But I knew that was just stupid. Satriani is one of the few absolute masters of the guitar – the guy can do anything. I remember an interview Joe once gave where he lamented the fact that so many people still thought he was some kind of “mad fusion” player – “I play rock music,” he said. Yes, yes he does. Need proof? Read on.

Quick aside: my all time favorite quote about Satch was from jazz guitar legend Pat Martino. Satriani played on Martino’s comeback album many years ago. After the recording session, Martino remarked, “Man, I’ve played with the best of the best, and that guy’s a motherfucker.”

For those not versed in jazz parlance, that was a huge compliment.

So when the album finally came out, I was more than ready. As I bought the CD I had a weird sense of terrible excitement tempered ever so slightly by the knowledge that so-called “supergroups” like this often didn’t work out so well – uneven efforts at best, and epic failures at worst. But I had nothing to fear. I went home and listened to the album straight through, just like the old days, smiling like a fool the whole time. The album rocks. Somehow these four guys managed to come together and create a kick ass record that not only showcases their considerable individual skills, but also sounds like a great band.

“Avenida Revolucion” kicks things off, and right away it’s high energy hard rock. Satriani is hitting his trademark harmonics and wailing all over the place; Chad Smith is beating the drums like they owe him money; Sammy is screaming the way only he can; and Mike is holding down the bottom and the top all at once, with his solid bass lines and steady harmonies. The guitar solo finds Joe in legato mode, and the rideout has some nice moments where Mike is able to shine on bass for a bit.

While we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to talk about Michael Anthony. To be honest, I never really appreciated Mike when he was in Van Halen.  When the Chickenfoot album came out, the band put together a series of videos to sort of introduce the band and the songs. In one of the videos Sammy said that they really made a conscious effort to feature the vocal harmonies in every song, because Sammy and Mike’s voices blended so nicely and created that signature Van Hagar sound. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but he was right – it is a very distinctive sound and a lot of that comes from Mike.

Chickenfoot put out a concert DVD after their tour (filmed, by the way, at the Phoenix show which I attended – I’m even in the video for half a second…well, my hair is anyway). There is one moment in that video that epitomizes Michael Anthony. I don’t even remember which song they were playing, but it was a moment that Mike was away from his mic, just jamming along on his bass. When the chorus came up, he just casually stepped up to the mic and belted out one of his patented VH-style harmonies, all the while holding down the bottom as if it was nothing. And that moment, for some reason, clicked in my head what an absolute pro Mike is.

It reminded me of a story about the actor Hal Holbrook (yes I know that’s an odd reference…stay with me). He was hired to be on a few episodes of The Sopranos back when it was still on the air. Sopranos creator David Chase was watching Holbrook film the first take of a scene, and when it ended, someone turned to him and said, “Wow, that was really good, wasn’t it?” And Chase replied, “Well, when you want something done right, you hire a pro.”

So hats off to Michael Anthony, the man, the myth, the professional.

While promoting this album, Sammy Hagar made a somewhat controversial statement comparing Chickenfoot to Led Zeppelin. He has since recanted that statement, saying he was drunk and it was just a really stupid thing to say (he even went so far as to pay homage to Led Zep on Chickenfoot’s second album, mentioning Houses of the Holy in the song “Big Foot”). Now, I’ll agree that his statement wasn’t exactly well thought-out. But, I have to say that if any Chickenfoot song were to win the honor of a Led Zep comparison, it would have to be the second song on the album, “Soap on a Rope”. This song ROCKS. It has a monster riff that Jimmy Page (or Tony Iommi, Angus Young, James Hetfield, or any of the all-time riff master gods) would be proud of. This song has it all and you can really tell that the whole band put everything they had into it. Chad’s drumming is funky and hard hitting at the same time. Joe’s tone is unreal, Sammy is killing it and Mike has some ridiculous harmonies going on. And to top it all off, they give us the extended rideout, somewhat reminiscent of Joe’s “Summer Song”, so by the time the song is finished the listener is just exhausted. What a great tune – one of my all time rock favorites.

“Sexy Little Thing” is a straight ahead rocker with some nice harmonies from Sammy and Mike, a tasty clean solo from Joe, and some really nice high-hat work from Chad. I hate to throw more fuel on the Led Zep fire, but Chad really does remind me a lot of John Bonham on this album. They were both big, powerful drummers who you expect to just bash the hell out of the drums, but they continually surprise you with how intricate their drum parts are, and how perfectly they fit the songs. “Thrifty” was how Robert Plant described Bonzo’s drumming, and I think that’s a very appropriate term for Chad here as well.

“Oh Yeah” was the first single off the album, and for good reason. It’s got the same attitude as “Soap on a Rope”, but with a bit more polish and restraint. It also features some of Joe’s best rhythm playing ever. I wish I knew how he got that extra crunchy rhythm tone.

“Runnin’ Out” is another mid-tempo tune, similar to “Sexy Little Thing”, with plenty more thriftiness from Chad and a killer wah solo from Joe.

“Get it Up” is next and is by far the most exotic of the tunes. One of Joe Satriani’s favorite scales is the Phrygian Dominant mode, which has a strong Middle Eastern tonality. Not something you hear every day, especially in mainstream rock music. But somehow Joe manages to write an entire song built on it, make it accessible, and make it rock. More great hi-hat and cymbal work from Chad on this one, and probably my favorite vocals of the whole album. Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are right up front on this one, with Mike joining in on all the verses rather than the chorus. The mix of their voices creates a really nice haunting effect that floats above the rhythm section like shifting sand.

The story behind “Down the Drain” is amazing. Joe had brought in a rough demo to share with the guys, and while he was tuning up his guitar, he started playing a little of his “Rubina’s Blue Sky Happiness” (my most favoritest tune of his ever, by the way). He then started just messing around, playing some slow, swampy riffs, and the guys joined in, thinking that was the song Joe was going to show them. They continued to jam for 15 or 20 minutes, instinctively following each other and never calling out chord changes or notes to each other. Sammy even got into it, throwing down rhythmic scratch vocals on top of the music. When the jam wound down, they all realized how cool it was and went to listen back to it. When they heard it they knew they had a song, so they edited it down, added a short bridge, Sammy overdubbed some vocals, and boom, there it was. They even kept Sammy’s original speaking parts from the start of the jam: “Is that that new thing, Joe? Huh? Talk to me, chief!”

“My Kinda Girl” is a tricky one for me. This is by far the most commercial sounding song on the album, and by that I mean it veers away from hard rock and into pop territory, especially in the chorus and bridge, where Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are really layered on thick. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with a good pop song, and I’m a sucker for a good melody, but in this context it just doesn’t quite feel right. Joe saves this one though, ripping into his guitar solo with one of his patented single-string runs, leaping through arpeggios punctuated with open strings, and ending with a blues run and whammy bar growl.

“Learning to Fall” is a beautiful ballad in B minor, featuring some great vocals by Sammy and Mike. But Joe steals this one too, with a soaring harmonic at the start of the guitar solo that is the emotional high point, elevating the song to another level.

“Turning Left” might as well be called “The Joe Show”. Another killer riff, and just a ridiculous amount of high-octane soloing insanity throughout. Supposedly he did all the solos in one take. Unreal.

“Future in the Past” is a bit of an oddball tune, but it’s my second favorite on the album, behind “Soap on a Rope”. This is the album’s closer, and the boys take us on an epic journey, winding through a dirty, funky verse section, into another Phrygian Dominant interlude, and winding up with a bombastic rock rideout. Joe is in full-on Hendrix mode here, and he delivers some gut-wrenching and soulful blues lines in his outro solo, while Sammy belts out his most emotional singing on the album.

Chickenfoot (the album) went gold just a few months after it was released. Compared to some of the past multi-platinum successes of its members, that seems like nothing to really brag about. But when viewed in today’s music climate, where hard rock is rarely seen or heard except on classic rock radio, and albums are something made in the olden times before iPods existed, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. My guess is that I’m not the only one out there who was awakened by this album and the glorious music on it. I’m thinking there are a lot of us out there, who for one reason or another really needed something like this, and the boys in Chickenfoot delivered.

Since this album came out, music has become part of my life again. I have been listening to so much more, discovering new stuff and also re-discovering my old favorites. I started going to concerts again (just saw Sting a few months ago). I started this blog. And I’ve even started playing guitar again – my wife got me a book of Coltrane transcriptions that I’m working through. Slowly. Very slowly.

I will be forever grateful for Chickenfoot. And since I may never get to say it in person, I’d like to sincerely say thank you to Sammy, Mike, Joe, and Chad for making the music they make, and stoking the fire.

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Proud Papa

So I’m driving in the car the other day with my two girls (ages 6 and 9) and “Fade to Black” comes on the radio. So naturally I crank it up. A few seconds go by, and my oldest pipes up and says, “Hey Dad, this sounds like Metallica.” I am gobsmacked, of course, and I ask how on earth  she knew that. She replies, “I could just tell by the sound of the guitars.”