The Weekly interview: Sammy Hagar

Sammy Hagar
A. Rosato
Matt Wardlaw

On his 1981 album Standing Hampton, Sammy Hagar famously declared that “there’s only one way to rock.” That has certainly been true in the case of the yearly October Birthday Bash week at Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, which has become a favorite destination for his fans. Affectionately known as “Redheads,” they’ve made an annual October pilgrimage to Cabo to help the former Van Halen frontman celebrate each birthday with maximum fanfare.

The week traditionally features a string of jam-heavy shows, often with an extensive slate of special guests each night. This year’s plans for the event, which is marking its 25th anniversary, were unfortunately altered after Hurricane Odile ripped through Cabo San Lucas on September 14 causing heavy damage to the resort area. For the first time, Hagar was forced to cancel the shows.

He’ll still celebrate his 67th birthday, though, with a relocated version of the Birthday Bash, set to rock Las Vegas on Saturday, October 18 at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. The lineup will feature Hagar, his former Van Halen comrade Michael Anthony on bass, guitarist Vic Johnson and drummer Jason Bonham making their Vegas debut as The Circle, performing a selection of classic favorites from Van Halen, Montrose, Led Zeppelin and Hagar’s own solo catalog.

Chickenfoot, the Red Rocker’s other “supergroup” featuring Anthony, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and guitarist Joe Satriani will reunite during the encore for a special set to finish off the night. We spoke to Hagar by phone to discuss the current Cabo situation and find out more about the upcoming Vegas performance.

Cabo San Lucas is near and dear to your heart and has become a big part of the Sammy Hagar story. How bad is the damage there? It’s much worse than what you hear back here. It’s funny, because you’ve got people saying, “Oh, it’s fine, come on down!” First of all, you can’t even get there, because the airport [isn’t open]. You can’t fly a plane … I own a plane, and I can’t fly in there. The first flight coming in other than military planes that are taking people out is [in mid-October] and by the end of October, they expect to have maybe 5,000 rooms available.

At the [Cabo Wabo] Cantina, we’re not even open for business. We’re not even thinking about being open for business, and we didn’t have any damages. It’s really bad, the worst ever, Cabo’s been through a lot of these. All of the utilities are out, and there’s no water and no food and no way to bring it in … that’s a real bad problem. But the other problem is that there’s no glass. A large percentage of the windows in that town, restaurants, hotels and houses, are gone—and there’s no glass. It’s not like you just go down to the corner glass shop and buy some new windows, you know? They’ve got to get it down there first.

I think it’s going to be a while, and I plan on doing something really big and really special when the town is on its feet. But I would never ask anyone to come down there and be susceptible to some really bad conditions and maybe get sick. There’s sewage and stuff running all over the place. I hate to be too graphic, but that place got hit. That’s the same hurricane strength as Katrina that hit New Orleans. Now, New Orleans is a little bit underwater, so the flooding [may have been a] little bit worse, but Cabo’s flat—that mother’s pretty much sea level—so it’s bad.

You’ve been a big part of that community for a number of years. What can people do to help? There’s nothing you can do right now, because the government and the military are in charge and they need to get it rebuilt and get it on its feet and get all of the looters out first.

Then once all of that’s done, we can start doing things like shipping food and clothing down for the kids and families that lost everything. To just send money, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, because it’s a foreign country and you just don’t know how it’s going to get distributed. So I would say if you want to do something, when the town’s ready, go back down there and take a bunch of 20 dollar bills with you and go down to the store and buy a bunch of diapers and things and hand it out personally. That way it goes directly to the people.

Is this the first time you’ve ever done the Birthday Bash outside of Cabo? It is, and it’s the first time the Birthday Bash has actually been canceled. We’ve been really close—four or five times we’ve had close calls and ended up doing it at the last minute.

You’ve put together a fun-sounding show for Vegas. Was the Chickenfoot performance was already in the works or did that come later? No, I squeezed that in. Joe Satriani is in South America touring right now, and he couldn’t make it back for my birthday [on 10/13]. … So then when it got moved to Vegas, the first thing that I did besides notifying The Circle to make sure Vic and Jason were all cool, was to go after those guys and get ’em there. So they’re all in. It’s going to be really cool. We’re going to do our whole set [with The Circle]. And then hopefully we get an encore, you know? (laughs) I’ve never not done an encore in my life except when I opened for KISS in 1975, and I not only didn’t get an encore, I got booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden, but that’s a different story. So anyway, Chad and them are going to come out for the encore and we’ll play three or four Chickenfoot songs. And if they want another encore after that, if I can still sing and walk and if we’re still sober enough, we’ll go back out and do some more Led Zeppelin or something.

Where did the band name The Circle come from? It’s me thinking that this band has brought me full circle—we’re able to play Montrose as good as Montrose, we’re able to play Van Halen as good as Van Halen, we’re able to play my solo stuff, some of it, better than it’s ever been played. It’s like coming full circle with all of the music I’ve written in my life and the great bands that I’ve been in and having a band that serves it the best that it’s ever been served. You know, Chickenfoot could have done that, but Chickenfoot doesn’t play other people’s songs; we play only our own stuff.

[With] The Circle, everybody is willing to play a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And then when you throw the Led Zeppelin thing in there, it’s like Jason’s joined the circle. He brought his family heritage into the circle with us, and if you look up what a circle means and symbolism and old Indian folklore and things, it’s heavy. It means a lot. It means that we’re protected and anyone in that circle is on the same page, in the same water, smoking from the same pipe, you know? It’s really heavy. Then you throw in the little Zeppelin twist of Jason’s father’s symbol—you know, the Zeppelin guys all had their own symbols, and his was the three circles. When I named this The Circle I wasn’t even thinking that. When Jason brought it up, we all got goose bumps on our arms and said, “We are The Circle.”

Where are things headed? Do you want to do an album with these guys? Right now I’m supposed to be promoting my acoustic Lite Roast record, which I love to death, but it isn’t something that I wanted to go out and promote and go out and play, performing acoustically. I didn’t want to do all of that. So instead, I’m going to tell you what’s going to go on. We have recorded and filmed every show that we’ve done, because I think we’re that great and that important in my career. I think we will release a double live CD of the greatest hits.(laughs)

Like, how about [we become] the only band in the world that their first album can be a greatest hits record? Don’t you think that’s funny? We have the setlist from heaven for any rocker. I mean, when you throw the classic Hagar, the classic Montrose, like “Rock Candy,” the classic Led Zeppelin in there, things like “When the Levee Breaks” and things that I don’t even think they ever played live and play the classic Van Halen, you know, the ones that they cannot play anymore and never will unless Mikey and I are standing up there.

You know, “Right Now,” “When It’s Love,” Finish What You Started,” “Best of Both Worlds,” I could keep going down that list for you for a while, “Dreams. No one else can play those songs, not even Van Halen. So I just think the setlist is a gift to the rockers of the world.

Sammy Hagar's Birthday Bash October 18, 8:30 p.m., $$65-$150. Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, 702-388-2400.

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