If there’s one thing Sammy Hagar can be counted on for, it’s effort. The Red Rocker has never been one to mail-in a performance, even under less than ideal circumstances. Last Friday night in Joliet, IL was no exception. Hampered by a short set time, poor acoustics, and a seating setup that was less than optimal for the fans in attendance, Hagar nonetheless delivered a spirited 75-minute performance as the headline act of the 2014 Taste of Joliet in front of 20,000 fans at ATI Field.
Many acts don’t hit the stage until 20-30 minutes after the time scheduled on the ticket stubs, but likely knowing he was only contracted for a set that was barely half the length of his normal shows, Hagar hit the stage at 9 PM sharp. Backed by his longtime cohorts the Wabos (Vic Johnson on guitar, Mona Gnader on bass, and David Lauser on drums), he navigated through a set of hits and a handful of fan favorites, touching on nearly every era of his storied career.
The festival’s setup provided some hurdles. Fans who had purchased up front ‘VIP’ seating were herded into a tightly packed area at the front of the stage with very little room to manuever, to the point where even press photographers had difficulty angling for a decent shot without bumping into a fan. Fans in the general admission area didn’t fare much better. With no grading to the field, people had difficulty seeing the stage, and only one relatively small projection screen was provided. Unfortunately, even that wasn’t much of a help due to the utterly incompetent work of the cameramen, who seemed to have a knack for zooming in at all the wrong moments. Guitarist Vic Johnson especially got the short end of the stick, getting nearly zero screen time even when firing off impressive guitar solos.
Logistic issues aside, Hagar and his band did their best to keep the crown engaged with a hits-packed, if predictable set. Crashing out of the gate with two of his biggest hits – ‘I Can’t Drive 55’ and Van Halen-era smash ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’, Hagar quickly made reference to his early entrance due to the short performance time. “I’ve been working Illinois way too long to be shorting you people!” he declared before ripping through a three song block of hits from his early 80’s solo breakthrough period, featuring ‘There’s Only One Way To Rock’, ‘I’ll Fall In Love Again’, and ‘Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy.’
Some classic Montrose tracks were up next, and the band played a lengthy medley of ‘Space Station #5’, ‘Rock Candy’, and ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ from their groundbreaking 1973 debut album before segueing into crowd favorite ‘Three Lock Box.’ Always a man of the people, Hagar spent plenty of time interacting with the crowd, reading custom made signs and pouring shots of his signature ‘Beach Bar Rum’ – his new pet liquor venture after selling off his homegrown Cabo Wabo tequila brand for a chunk of change that closely resembled a Powerball jackpot. He joked about his inability to control his rough language even in front of a family-friendly festival, kidding that he probably greeted the hospital staff with a ‘What the fuck is up?!’ shortly after leaving the womb.
A stripped down reading of Van Halen’s ‘Dreams’ was up next, followed by a rollicking ‘Finish What Ya Started’ from 1988’s OU812, crowd singalong favorite ‘Top of the World’ from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The fists stayed pumping through ‘Heavy Metal’ and then a nod to the late-90’s Red Voodoo era with ‘Mas Tequila.’ Despite the recent change in focus for his liquor businesses, ‘Mas Rum’ just wouldn’t be quite as catchy.
Again acknowledging his shortage of time, Hagar declined to leave the stage before the customary encore, declaring it a waste of time. He laughed off a request for 70’s nugget ‘Trans Am’ on a fan’s sign, joking that he no longer owns the car and that ‘there are electric cars now that will blow the doors off that fucker!’ Another fan was a bit luckier, as Hagar obliged their sign request for ‘Right Now’ for some recently married friends who had chosen it as their wedding song. The band delivered the song in slower, stripped down fashion (similar to their treatment of ‘Dreams’), with the Red Rocker joking that they have to find new ways to play keyboard-heavy tunes since there is no keyboard player in the band. (Longtime sidekick and keyboardist Jesse Harms departed the Wabos several years ago.)
The electric guitars were strapped back on for the finale, a spirited version of the title track from 1997’s Marching to Mars that garnered a big crowd response despite not being one of Hagar’s more well known numbers. (Though to be fair, it was a fairly big rock radio hit in the Chicago area in the summer of ’97.)
At age 66, it would be easy to wonder just how much Hagar has left in the tank. If he’s able to keep putting the kind of energy into his performances that he did on Friday night, he has no reason to apply the brakes any time soon.
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