With the recent passing of Pat Torpey, it’s definitely time for some fresh listens to classic Mr. Big. Their most underrated album might be their fourth, Hey Man, on which Torpey had three writing credits. 1991’s Lean Into It is generally considered the highwater mark, but Hey Man boasted songs just as strong and many just as memorable. If only MTV wasn’t avoiding Mr. Big and bands of their era like the bubonic plague.
Mr. Big were always ferocious musicians, and formed as a “supergroup” of such. The point of Mr. Big was for these mega-instrumentalists to write some commercial rock, and that has been their modus operandi on every album. When Mr. Big formed, Torpey already boasted two albums: Ted Nugent’s If You Can’t Lick ‘Em…Lick ‘Em, and the supergroup Impelliteri. Billy Sheehan was already worshipped for his work with David Lee Roth and before that, Talas. Guitarist Paul Gilbert had established himself as a wunderkind with the Shrapnel band, Racer X. The key ingredient to Mr. Big is the blue-eyed soul of singer Eric Martin. He had a two album solo career before he made the unlikely jump to supergroup.
It’s the rocking side of Mr. Big that hits the ground running on first track “Trapped in Toyland”. Heavier and grooving more than usual, Mr. Big poured the gas on the fire right off the bat. It’s a huge impression. Gilbert wrote this smoker with his old Racer X singer Jeff Martin, and Russ Parish of Fight (and now Steel Panther). That would explain the heavy! What really nails the heavy sound is the combination of Billy Sheehan’s bass rumble in conjunction with Torpey’s smashing beat.
The most stunning of all the songs is the second, a bonafide Mr. Big classic called “Take Cover”. It simmers under an infrared pulse of drum beats and understated chords, and then bursts wide open on the choruses. It’s triumphant songwriting and a fine example of how musicianship and songcraft can work together. It is one of their career best.
“Jane Doe” goes funky a-la “The Crunge”. Eric Martin pushes it into soul on the choruses. A couple ballads follow, one acoustic and one darker. “Goin’ Where the Wind Blows” fills the slot of past Mr. Big acoustic ballads, something that had become compulsory after the success of “To Be With You”. The more interesting song is “The Chain” which has a sombre edge.
There is an undeniable twang to “Where Do I Fit In?”, so much that it could easily be mistaken for Tesla. It’s a solid side closer, though “sides” were becoming meaningless in 1996. Hey Man has never seen a vinyl release, and the dying cassette version was the only one with “sides”.
Eric Martin makes it soulful on “If That’s What it Takes”, which doesn’t deserve to be called a ballad so we won’t. It serves as a reminder of how these musicians can adapt to any situation. The Paul Gilbert who plucks these earthy chords is the same guy who shred all over Lean Into It. Pat Torpey turns into a human steamroller on “Out of the Underground”. It’s as heavy metal as Mr. Big have been. Then they go “Dancin’ Right Into the Flame” on a pretty cool ballad. It has a bit more finesse than the usual.
You can tell immediately that “Mama D.” was written by Paul Gilbert, because it has one of those squirrly Gilbert guitar licks that only he writes. To close the album, they return to a heavy soul-funk on “Fool Us Today”. Pat Torpey is rock solid and a key ingredient to a fun closer.
Track for track, Hey Man can go up against most other Mr. Big albums. They had a temporary breakup after this CD, a result of it being criminally ignored.