Van Halen Live! Review
Webster's Dictionary defines the word "impossible" as "unable to be done, performed, effected, etc.:an impossible assignment.". Up until recently, this was the textbook definition of any Van Halen reunion in the 21st Century. In the late 70's Van Halen rambled onto the rock landscape like roaming warriors who could win any battle with their unbreakable brotherhood. A few decades and singers down the line, the legacy of Van Halen appeared to be a distant memory until this past winter when rumors began to circulate of a reunion with David Lee Roth. Could the impossible really be happening? Despite some false starts, it did indeed happen and the Van Halen brothers and David Lee Roth made their first Chicago area performance in twenty-three years at the Allstate Arena.
First things first, the sound in the arena was an atrocity and whoever is handling the band's sound should be fired. I haven't heard a show sound this ghastly in over fifteen-years. Even worse, it reflected on the band. As I spoke to people as I left many appeared to be dissatisfied with the sound and couldn't believe that top ticket prices of $170 (even more for the fan club members) means the band couldn't afford a first rate sound system. The sound was the equivalent to listening to a fifth generation bootleg from 1978 in a crappy car stereo with the volume at eleven. Now that is out of the way, I'm surprised (pleasantly) to say that Van Halen is revitalized. Even though it's been over twenty-years since the core group has performed and the fact we are barely three weeks into the tour, the band appeared as if they have been playing together everyday for the last two decades. They were tight, succinct and in short…on fire.
A small drape covered the front portion of the stage and as Eddie cranked out the opening riff to "You Really Got Me", a curtain descended to find Edward, Alex and Wolfgang Van Halen ripping through the number as if it was 1974 all over again with David Lee Roth waving a gigantic red flag on the back platform like a King ready to re-claim his throne. "I'm The One" and "Romeo Delight" followed quickly and it was like being put in a time capsule. Eddie, who remained shirtless the entire show, hasn't appeared this together in years. The last time I saw him perform this well was 1993. On the 2004 tour with Hagar he appeared to be embodying Keith Richards with carefree playing but tonight and from all reports on this tour, he's performing these songs with pinpoint precision making you feel like its 1984 all over again.
The evening's first seducing moment was when Wolfgang took the winding platform hovering the back of the stage to finger that vivacious opening bass riff to "Runnin' With The Devil" as his father looked up at him and gleamed a smile (which I haven't seen since 1993) that was nothing short of jubilant joy. Wolfie was spot on the entire night and never missed a beat. During "So This Is Love?", Roth even commented "someone's been practicing" as Wolfgang's fingers effortlessly drifted across the four strings taking you back to when you heard ‘Fair Warning' for the first time. I'm not going to lie; I wish Michael Anthony was on stage for this reunion as he has the history with the band and deserves to take his rightful place in this reunion. Now that I've said my peace, it's important to note that Wolfgang isn't just a replacement playing all of the right notes, but a brilliant foil to not just his father and uncle, but to Roth as well. The interaction between Roth and all three Van Halen's was priceless and during some extended solo's you cold see Roth and Wolfgang chatting with one another and it was all smiles. As much as I would like to see Michael Anthony on stage, one can't deny the determination by the other three, which is probably fed by Wolfgang's youthful outlook. In my mind, this reunion probably never would have happened without Wolfgang. His father has fought some serious demons in recent years and no one could fix him except his son. I only hope Wolfgang continues to bring out the best in his father.
David Lee Roth has mystified the masses for close to two decades but tonight he appeared a few decades younger and looked it as well. His outfit for the evening was a killer jacket, stylish leather pants and an occasional top hot (even though there were jacket and hat changes it's important to note they were the same design, only different colors). Roth's ripped body looked better than most men in their early twenties. He looked, felt and sounded the part of head ringleader and boy did he relish it. His introduction to "Ice Cream Man" may have been a bit long but this isn't the Diamond Dave you love to hate, this is the Diamond Dave you love to love. He has taken the reunion seriously and exceeded my expectations every way imaginable.
The set list was staggering and a long time fan's wet dream come true with a mix of classic rock staples ("(Oh) Pretty Woman", "Everybody Wants Some", "Hot For Teacher") and deep album cuts ("Atomic Punk", "Little Dreamer", "Little Guitars"). One bit of irony is that you could clearly tell who in the audience has been dreaming of this reunion, as they were the most physical. Surprisingly, on the album cuts, a large portion of the crowd looked lost. Maybe it was the sound, but I overheard one fan behind me who was complaining to her boyfriend that she felt the Sammy Hagar material is more recognizable and she may be right. Regardless, what is important is that this current incarnation of Van Halen has sculpted a magnificent set list that reestablishes them as rock God's.
I never thought I would ever hear "Beautiful Girls", "Dance The Night Away" or "And The Cradle Will Rock" ever again, let alone with Roth and Eddie on the same stage. I was especially amazed by the playfulness both of them exhibited with each other, even sharing the microphone on certain songs. There appeared to be indisputable camaraderie between the two, something I once deemed impossible but tonight it was a reality. This is what was absent from the Police reunion from earlier this year. There was no sense of chemistry or understanding between those three members, but the collective whole of Van Halen appears to be authentically excited about this rebirth. Each song was performed with an unexpected searing intensity. No one can criticize the band for calling this one in. "Mean Street" is living proof of the resurrection of this band. The song was dazzling and spot on. Once again, credit must be given to Wolfgang who not only picked the set list but based on reports I have heard has told his father when he's not playing it correctly. As a result you may be witnessing the most precise version of Van Halen to ever exist. The most adorned songs of the evening were the scalding "Unchained" (which I feel the band should play twice a night…once to open the show and another time to close it) was a goose-bump moment as was "I'll Wait" which is widely disregarded by many fans. Here's a song that was only performed on one tour but on this tour, the big pop-wise number was not just a crowd pleaser but puts the song in an entirely different light as a pop gem in the Van Halen catalog.
Eddie Van Halen stands as the only musician who can do a solo in concert and not have the crowd exile to the concessions. Eddie's solo was a simple "Greatest Hits" affair featuring "Cathedral", "316" and the ever marvelous "Eruption". I enjoyed the Keith Richards-esque Eddie from 2004 where it was more about feeling than precision, but it was delightful to see him astonish an audience whose collective mouths were gaping on the floor. I forgot how subtle yet amazing "Cathedral" could be where he makes his guitar sound like a synthesizer. The guitar is not an easy instrument to learn let alone master. Do you have any idea how bored and accomplished one has to be in order to figure out the things Eddie has? He stands alone as probably the best rock guitarist on the planet despite what Rolling Stone magazine says.
As the show drew to a close "Panama", "Ain't Talking About Love" and the climactic confetti exploding "Jump" delivered a nostalgic knock out to the 13,000 in attendance. I must admit to being doubtful this reunion could ever work, but it did. The titanic expectations were met and one can only hope they keep the momentum going and aim for timelessness on a studio album and further tours in the not too distant future. Van Halen has spent the better part of a decade out of the limelight and now that they have reestablished themselves, it's time to rock the cradle worldwide once again.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door
You Really Got Me
I'm the One
Runnin' With the Devil
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Dance the Night Away
Everybody Wants Some
So This Is Love?
And the Cradle Will Rock
Hot for Teacher
Ice Cream Man
Guitar Solo (incl. "Women in Love" intro, "Cathedral", "Eruption")
Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
CD Info and Links
Van Halen Live!