If there is dysfunction and dissension in Camp Van Halen, none was evident Tuesday night. A few days after it announced the postponement of dozens of shows on its tour, amid rumors that band members “hated each other,” according to Rolling Stone, Van Halen headlined a show at the Sprint Center. And everything appeared hunky-dory.
There were plenty of smiles, hugs and even a kiss or two among the band during the two hour show, which was a rag-tag blend of sweet nostalgia, campy entertainment and arena-sized rock and roll . In return, a crowd of more than 8,500 bestowed upon the band a steady shower of appreciation and unconditional love.
This is the second tour for this version of Van Halen, which features founding members David Lee Roth on vocals, brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen on guitar and drums, and Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son on bass. He joined the band in 2007 for the Roth reunion tour, which came to the Sprint Center. Five years later, everyone is older, for better and worse.
Wolfgang, now 22, is a more steady presence in the band, though he still lacks the stage personae of founding bassist Michael Anthony. Alex is still a madman on the drums. Eddie is still a pyrotechnic on guitar. And Roth? He’s still a man out in his own orbit, part hammy game-show host, part comedian, part rock-star diva in leather and sequins.. He can’t sing like he used to, he can’t leap and kick like he used to, he can’t remember all the lyrics, and he barely has the wind to cross the finish line of a two-hour show. Yet he gives the band what it also needs: personae and schtick -- showmanship.
Tuesday’s openers were Kool and the Gang, who are all about pairing showmanship with musicianship. Its 45-minute set was stocked with its best-known hits, like “Hollywood Swinging,” “Ladies Night,” “Get Down On It,” and “Celebration.” Throughout the set, there was plenty of dancing, on stage and in the crowd. During “Jungle Boogie,” the band’s trumpet player stopped, nailed a one-handed cartwheel and picked up his solo again.
Roth had nothing like that in his repertoire. Instead, except for a few half-hearted kicks, most of the night he shuffled and danced like the tipsy uncle at a wedding -- not nearly as suave as he thinks he is. If there is trouble within the band it likely starts with him. His weird interaction with a female he said was young enough to be his daughter was odd, if not borderline creepy. After he perceived that she was laughing at him, he gave her a lecture on how to sex-up her fishnet stockings. Later, he gave Wolfie a history lesson on the song “Panama.” (It’s about a stripper, not the country.) But in general, he stuck to the affable showman routine, which he still does as well as anyone.
They opened with “Unchained,” from the “Fair Warning” album, now more than 30 years old. The sound was not great at first. I was standing on the floor, not far from the soundboard, and Roth’s vocals were buried in the mix. It seemed to improve gradually as the night went on; at least it sounded better on the top of the first level, where I watched the last half of the show. The band played before an enormous video screen that broadcast a mix of black-and-white live scenes from the stage and other pre-recorded footage -- a good thing for the many people in the cheaper upper-level seats.
The setlist included a four songs from “A Different Kind of Truth,” released in February. The rest was a good mix of hits and favorites: “Everybody Wants Some,” “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Somebody Get Me A Doctor.,” “Hot for Teacher.” The crowd gave most of them huge ovations, especially “Devil” and “Teacher,” but the songs that ignited the biggest responses were the pop tunes, such as “Dance the Night Away,” “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and “Jump.”
About halfway in, Alex Van Halen put on a brief drum solo with a Caribbean beat, like something out of a Jimmy Buffet concert. Throughout the night, Eddie showed off the skills and techniques that have made him a deity among fans and fellow guitarists. Late in the show, he put on a guitar clinic that went on a little too long for which Roth ordained him reigning world champion. And Wolfgang did yeoman work on bass and background vocals. I won't say he made people forget about Anthony, but I doubt too many people were missing him badly.
Roth’s performance was more uneven. He toyed with his vocal delivery on a few songs, half-scatting the beginning of “You Really Got Me,” for example; he dropped some lyrics (as he did in 2007). He also shared with the crowd part of his life away from the band, which made for a peculiar interlude in the show. After “Beautiful Girls,” he came out on stage alone, playing acoustic guitar as the video screen showed footage of Roth with his herding dogs, which he talked about fondly and proudly. Then he performed “Ice Cream Man” solo, until the band joined him and set the second half of the song on fire.
There were rumors flying around that Sammy Hagar, who replaced Roth in 1985, was in the Sprint Center on Tuesday. Supposedly there is photo evidence, but i haven’t seen any (and I don't buy the rumors). Sounds more like a hoax or a case of mistaken identity. Hagar has already chimed in on the show postponements: “They're hard people to get along with, those brothers. I predicted this was going to happen.” If he had been in the house on Tuesday, however, he'd have realized that (a) everyone is getting a long well enough to make it through a show every night; and (b) Roth is the guy most Van Halen fans prefer, by a long shot, despite the flaws in his game.
All that was most evident during the finale. As soon as the keyboard intro to “Jump” was piped in, the place went a little crazy. Eddie jumped around like his favorite team had just won the World Series and Roth looked like a guy taking a victory lap. By song’s end he was waving a checkered flag, standing in blizzard of confetti. It was the perfect ending to an entertaining night, moral implied. Life’s too short for grudges and regrets. Might as well jump and dance, while you still can.
Setlist: Unchained; Runnin’ With the Devil; She’s the Woman; Tattoo; Everybody Wants Some; Somebody Get Me A Doctor; China Town; Hear About it Later; (Oh) Pretty Woman; drum solo; You Really Got Me; The Trouble With Never; Dance the Night Away; I’ll Wait; And the Cradle Will Rock; Hot For Teacher; Women In Love; Beautiful Girls; Ice Cream Man; Panama; guitar solo; Ain’t Talkin’ About Love; Jump.
| Timothy Finn, The Star