There's Only One Way To Rock?
by Dave Iozzia / Photos by Phil Laskowski

Sammy Hagar style? Maybe. Cabo Wabo style with Mas Tequila? Not me. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and there are plenty of ways to. I prefer well-crafted songs played by a smokin' band, preferably in a dark, sweaty club. Uncle Sammy and his Wabos gave me most of that at a recent concert in Englewood, New Jersey's Bergen Performing Arts Center. They played a lot of Sammy's classic material that spans four decades, and the band was red hot. What I didn't need were the fans in the bleachers that were set up on stage, the bikini-clad waitresses, the barrage of Sammy's branded tequila, or his lengthy chatter between songs. Yet I totally understand that it was a Sam (I Am) Hagar concert and that is his lifestyle and his schtick. Calling Sammy passionate or free-spirited would be an understatement. That's what most of the Redheads were there for, and Sammy does host one helluva party. And the Bergen PAC is a great concert host.

I was there for "Rock Candy" and not eye candy. Sammy acknowledged his 1970s band Montrose, painfully reminding me that it was 35 years old. Playing their classic "Rock Candy" was a sweet choice, yet I was hoping for "Bad Motor Scooter" or "Rock The Nation." Sammy's chatter between songs robbed the audience of at least two more songs. The Red Rocker has so many classic songs that he could work into his setlist, whether it's from Montrose, his era with Van Halen, or his solo records. He could never play them all and that's a challenge that many rock veterans face nightly. Yet Sammy could have delivered a few more of those classics by limiting, while not eliminating, his onstage banter.

Sammy played guitar on most of the songs. His vocals sounded as crisp and powerful as they did when the older songs that the band performed were originally recorded. The band powered their way through a setlist highlighted by "I Can't Drive 55" and "Sam (I Am)." They added "Why Can't This Be Love?" and a slowed-down version of "Dreams" from Sammy's 11-year stint with Van Halen. He was joined onstage by Wabos' lead guitarist Vic Johnson, bass guitarist Mona Gnader, and drummer David Lauser. As a unit, they were tighter than the last time I heard them play. That was 2002, when Sammy and the Wabos co-headlined with David Lee Roth and his band on the "Heavyweights of Rock" tour.

The Wabos lack the technical ability of Eddie and Alex when they backed Sammy in Van Halen. They also lack the "name power" that is rumored to be playing behind Sammy in an upcoming musical project named Chickenfoot. That band will have ex-Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony joining Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith in the rhythm section and Joe Satriani on lead guitars. What The Wabos do have is chemistry. They play the songs without overplaying them or adding extended solos. The focus is on Sammy and his catalog of classic rock material. They're "Livin' It Up" on stage. They let the songs do the talking instead of their instruments.

I've never been to the Mexican resort town of Cabo San Lucas. Yet the tiki bar on the stage and girls in bikinis serving drinks were Sammy Hagar's way of transporting the New Jersey crowd there for a 90-minute visit. Compared to the legendary three-hour tour of the S.S. Minnow and its shipwreck on Gilligan's Island, I'd rather be stranded in the jungle at Sammy's beach resort, the Cabo Wabo Cantina. His larger-than-life persona beats the ingenuity and dead-fish personality of The Professor, who could create a radio out of a coconut but he couldn't build a sea-worthy raft. What's up with that? Gilligan's bongo playing sucked, unlike the top-notch drumbeats of David Lauser. Twist my arm though and I'd have to pick Ginger, Mary Ann, and coconut milk over Sammy's waitresses and their Cabo Wabo Tequila.

Meanwhile, back in the States, the Bergen Performing Arts Center continues to remind me why it is one of my favorite concert venues. Just a stone's throw from the George Washington Bridge, the Bergen PAC books more, as well as bigger and better rock concerts, than the New York City and New Jersey theaters that it competes with. Its downtown Englewood location offers convenient parking for a handful of quarters to feed the meters. There's also dozens of restaurants within walking distance. Once you step foot inside, it gets even better. The theater is immaculately clean, with great sightlines and acoustics. The venue's staff and security personnel are, for the most part, very fan-friendly and accommodating. They were very quick and willing to help me resolve a minor snafu with my photo access at this concert.

The exception to the rule was the grumpy old stagehand who affectionately referred to the half-dozen or so fans hanging out during the afternoon near the stage entrance as "lot lizards." Autograph seekers, yes. Stalkers, maybe? But cold-blooded, four-legged animals? No way. Speaking of the term half-dozen, often referred to as the number six, Sammy Hagar and way too many musicians these days are ignoring the handful of people waiting all afternoon or an hour after the show for an autograph or photo. Aren't we the ones who helped create their careers by purchasing their records and attending their concerts? Aren't we the ones that kept those careers afloat once the record companies stop throwing them money and the radio stations ignored their latest records? I can understand if there were fifty people waiting in the parking lot. I also agree with the rockstar's thought process that at least one of the six autograph seekers was running straight to Ebay once they got their vinyl copy of Van Halen's multi-platinum "5150" or "OU812" hand-signed. I just think it should be mandatory that they stop by and spend three minutes greeting those six fans. Selling the "VIP Experience" where fans can purchase prime seats and meet-and-greet opportunities is not a problem in my opinion, as long as the musician also realizes that many of their die-hard fans cannot afford such luxury. In that case, Sammy, stop running out of the stretch limousine. Say hello to the half-dozen people waiting and autograph your records that these fans purchased.

I'm sorry to vent while standing on this musical soapbox. There is more than one way to rock. Diversity and freedom of choice is the way to go. Keep listening to music and turn it up loud. See Sammy and The Wabos any chance you get. The Red Rocker can really interpret and deliver a song. Keep attending live musical performances and strongly consider the Bergen Performing Arts Center when choosing a venue. You won't be disappointed. Keep stopping by Dave's On for the latest and greatest concert stories, photographs, and musician interviews. And keep rockin'.

Outside The Bergen PAC, Englewood, NJ.

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