They might be calling their current mini-touring run a road test, but Saturday night’s sold out Chickenfoot performance at the Metro in Chicago (the fourth date on their five show run) proved that version 2.0 of the ‘Foot has fully graduated from the testing phase.

The Metro is one of the smallest venues on the tour, with an advertised capacity of 1100. Inside the walls of the legendary concert room, it felt even smaller than that. A wide variety of artists have played significant shows at the Metro, from Bob Dylan and the Foo Fighters to hometown favorites like the Smashing Pumpkins and Wilco.

It’s one of those places that you can just feel the history within, and Sammy Hagar took a moment early in the show to note very sincerely (now, we’ve also heard him say this in the past in other venues with more of a joking tone) how much the Metro reminded him of his own club, the Cabo Wabo.

It certainly provided a comfortably intimate, no frills rock and roll setting to experience the new material from their new album ‘III’ for the first time up close and in person. All of the new material aired on the night finally felt fully formed, particularly  in comparison to the initial embryonic performances of the same songs that had been debuted previously during the webcast that officially launched the new album.

To say that touring drummer Kenny Aronoff (a temporary replacement for normal ‘Foot drummer Chad Smith) has found his groove with the Chickenfoot material would be an understatement. From the moment that the ‘Foot took the stage for what would be a solid 16 song, hour and forty-five minute set, Aronoff and bassist Michael Anthony were immediately perfectly in sync, bringing the low end groove that really made Chickenfoot’s sound cook.

One of the coolest items of the night was something that you couldn’t buy at the merch stand. Hagar, who had his mic stand (red, of course) shaped in the style of the “R” of his Red Rocker logo, was wearing a vintage MTV Van Halen branded Cabo Wabo Cantina t-shirt from the original grand opening of the club.

He might have not been ready to make a new album after a busy year promoting his ‘Red’ memoirs, but ever the true professional, his performance in Chicago gave no indication that he had been burning the candle at both ends.

Throughout his career, Hagar has made no secret of his love for Led Zeppelin, and the Zep-worthy stomp of Chickenfoot as a live unit really pays homage to that. This was on display very early, as they ripped through the heavy sludgy set opener ‘Lighten Up,’ with Hagar adding extra grit to his vocals.

Hagar might have found his greatest collaborator in fellow San Francisco friend and guitar legend Joe Satriani, whose catchy riffing always fits with the moment. He also added appropriate amounts of the expected Satch flash without ever reaching the point of overload.

It was fun picking out the various influential nods from Satriani, such as the driving buzzsaw feel of his playing during ‘Sexy Little Thing’ that brought to mind a noisy Beatles vibe ala ‘Revolution.’

He did take some ribbing from Hagar late in the set, when a roadie brought out a free-standing double neck guitar for Satriani to play on the brooding ‘Something’s Going Wrong.’ “This looks serious,” Hagar quipped with a sly look. “Jimmy Page though, when he plays the double neck, he wears it. What’s up with that…too heavy?”

Sammy later lobbed some more humor-loaded praise in Satriani’s (and Eddie Van Halen’s, and Ronnie Montrose’s) direction, telling the crowd “Joe ain’t as mellow as he seems. You watch – I’ll get fired from this band too!”

As Michael Anthony had indicated to us in our recent interview, the band did indeed stick nearly exclusively to the Chickenfoot playbook, delivering a set that was almost evenly split between the first album and material from ‘III.’  The material from the new album was noticeably toughened up in the live setting and seeing it all live really fleshed out what a great rock album it is.

Surprisingly, album opener ‘Last Temptation’ was missing in action from the setlist, but there were plenty of monstrous moments to take its place, from the always powerful ‘Big Foot’ to a stormin’ run through ‘Up Next.’ That song addresses the inescapable issue of mortality with an upbeat viewpoint from Hagar (who grinned at the end of the song and said “you never know!”)

An emotionally charged rendering of ‘Three And A Half Letters’ found Hagar holding paper printouts of each letter which he handed to audience members as he finished each one. He drove the song’s message home by holding up a cardboard sign with the written words “9 Years Old And Homeless,” reprising the spoken end of the lyrics.

For Van Halen fans, one of the best things about the night might have been seeing bassist Michael Anthony on stage, anchoring things with rock-solid bass work and his signature background vocals. His singing combined once again with Hagar’s vocals as perfectly as ever, making songs like the party rock infused ‘Alright Alright’ soar high. He did it all, in typical fashion, with a grin plastered from ear to ear on his face throughout the night, adding infectious amounts of enthusiasm to the mix.

It’s to Chickenfoot’s credit that they were able to deliver nearly two hours of material taken almost exclusively from their two albums (the one exception being a show closing romp through Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’) and still leave fans wanting more.

The Chicago “road test” was a certifiable rager from four musical veterans who know a thing or two about throwing a good party (seriously – when was the last time that you saw a roadie carry out a cooler on stage during setup?).

It was a nice preview of the full fledged touring that the band has planned for 2012. From what they threw down on stage on Saturday night, you won’t want to miss it.

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