Eddie Van Halen Saves! (in Chicago)
On April 1 I saw Van Halen for the third time. The first time I saw them was in 2004 with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, and that was a Top 5 show for me. Sammy was fantastic, as was the band, ripping through songs from every era in sizzling form. The second time I saw them was in 2007 (?), which was the first tour with David Lee Roth and Wolfgang Van Halen replacing Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, respectively. This wasn’t as good as my first Van Halen show, but great nonetheless, as seeing Diamond Dave for the first time was a treat.
That brings us to two Sundays ago, which was simultaneously phenomenal and phenomenally disappointing.
The band plays on a Spartan stage, with only stacks of amps, a stair riser that has Alex Van Halen’s kit on top, and a mat of sorts for Roth to slide around on. A giant video screen dominates the backdrop. Van Halen plays an impressively long set, clocking in at over two hours, which includes 22 VH songs and a solo break for Eddie and Alex. On the surface the concert is amazing – the crowd is viscerally linked into every note and knows every word (and sings most of them), each song crackles with resplendent energy and all four of the band members are having a great freakin’ time. But going a layer under the surface reveals a different kind of truth…
David Lee Roth does not have “it” anymore. He has traded his acrobatics for sliding around on a mat like a 5-year-old in socks, and his ridiculous outfits have been swapped out for mere shadows of the prior bombast. But the most disappointing thing is his voice - it is almost completely shot. He saves up for a handful of strong bursts, but mostly operates in a gravelly lower register. He was also melodically flat, and often off-key. Humorously, after an early blackout Roth came back on stage lambasting the arena staff for turning on “the blowers” which apparently was messing with his, and Wolfgang and Eddie’s voices. Or it could just be the years of drinking and smoking, but who am I to say for sure? To his credit Dave is still a showman, and still has a twinkle in his eye and undeniable charisma on stage, but his voice and body can’t cash the checks his bravado is writing.
Alex Van Halen is a drummer. And that is about it. I once got offended when I read somewhere that Van Halen had the most overrated rhythm section of any rock band. While that is easy hyperbole, time and perspective shows that idea to be true more and more. While the presence of Eddie Van Halen (more on him later) dictates staying away from complicated rhythm work - because, well, Eddie has it covered – Alex had an off night. His solo was played over a synth track on the P.A., which we never would have seen previously. His work during the actual songs was fine, but I remember a day when Alex Van Halen could uncork an impressive bought of speed and precision for his solo, but now he just jams along to pre-recorded music.
Wolfgang Van Halen is forgettable. His big moment came when he played the opening bass chords for “Running With the Devil,” and he spent the rest of the night wandering around his side of the stage and offering up painful vocal harmonies. This may be the most glaring weakness of the current Van Halen lineup. While Michael Anthony was a good-not-great bass player, he may be the best vocal harmonizer rock n’ roll has ever seen. But Wolfgang isn’t even an average singer, and it was painful to listen to the chorus in “Running with the Devil,” or any other song that had backing harmonies (all of them, btw), as he just didn’t hit the notes – never mind getting anywhere close to where Michael Anthony performed the vocals. Wolfgang finally warmed up for “Jump,” but that was the last song – better late than never I guess.
But none of that matters. My “old-days-are-always-better-days” rants notwithstanding, none of that even is close to remotely mattering. Because Van Halen still has the two things that made them successful to begin with – Eddie Van Halen and killer songs.
Eddie Van Halen is still the best guitarist I have seen live, and I have seen plenty of them (Mustaine/Friedman/Broderick, Hammet/Hetfield, Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen, Hanneman/King, Skolnick/Peterson, Laiho, Petrucci, and on and on…) to know this. Eddie’s solo, mainly comprised of bits from his various album instrumentals, was vibrant and engaging, and his playing on proper songs is dexterous and light while still operating like a ten-ton anvil to the frontal lobe. The show started with Eddie’s downtuned roundhouse “Unchained,” and when Eddie played the opening chords to “Panama” later on it felt like his guitar would short circuit the entire Chicagoland area, just from the heat coming off…
Which brings me to the songs. Van Halen’s songs are still as relevant and exciting now as they were twenty or thirty years ago. Even the new songs have some of that sizzle (“She’s the Woman” was an absolute killer, despite the brutal backing vocal work). “I’ll Wait” – long the domain of Van Halen-hipster ironic cool – was a complete bunker buster (that’s a good thing), as the synth combined with Eddie’s shimmying riffs was mesmerizing. “The Full Bug” and “Women In Love” are two underrated deep cuts that are better than anything that is on the radio nowadays. This is all not to mention the big classics – all of which are still great pieces of rock n’ roll.
This report may seem like it devolved into a judgment on the current state of Van Halen instead of a blow-by-blow description of a concert, and that is largely true. Because let’s be honest – nobody goes to Van Halen shows to see them play the new stuff, and the highest profile song they didn’t play was “…And the Cradle Will Rock…”, so let’s focus on what matters most. And what matters most is this: as long as Eddie Van Halen writes your music and plays for your band, you will be just fine.
2. Runnin' With the Devil
3. She's the Woman
4. The Full Bug
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
7. Somebody Get Me a Doctor
8. China Town
9. Jamie's Cryin'
10. Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison cover)
11. Drum Solo
12. You Really Got Me (The Kinks cover)
13. The Trouble with Never
14. Dance the Night Away
15. I'll Wait
16. Hot for Teacher
17. Women In Love
18. Outta Love Again
19. Beautiful Girls
20. Ice Cream Man (John Brim cover)
22. Guitar Solo
23. Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
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