Van Halen

June 12, 2012
Honda Center
Anaheim , CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon

I vaguely remember someone’s backyard in Norwalk; the world famous Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood; Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame in Buena Park, down the street from Knott's Berry Farm; Long Beach Arena; Anaheim Stadium. These are the places I saw Van Halen perform at in the 70s. After that, I only saw them two more times in the 20th century — 1984 and 1986, both at the San Diego Sports Arena. The latter was with Sammy Hagar in the band. Although I liked Hagar with Montrose and as a solo artist, his stint with Van Halen didn’t really sink in with me. It wasn’t the same without Roth.

From that first time, sipping bad beer from a keg and co-mingling with other half-witted, drunk high schoolers behind a three-bedroom bungalow in a relatively sane neighborhood, I just knew Van Halen was going to be huge. All these years later, it’s hard to believe the band’s long and wacky run has come full circle. They don’t have Michael Anthony guzzling JD and holding down the bottom end anymore, and that’s a damn shame. But in every other conceivable way, the Van Halen I used to follow around in the late 70s is back.

More than the previous 2007 tour, it took A Different Kind Of Truth, Van Halen’s first full album with David Lee Roth since 1984 (and the first album ever with Wolfgang, Edward’s son, on bass) to validate the reunion for me. When it came out in the press that most of the songs were old rejects from the band’s early days, I laughed because I knew they had those and a whole bunch more that never made it onto their records. They were all good, so why not use them now? Makes perfect sense to me. More bands should do this.

So then the tour comes along and rumors surface about “the same old problems,” stemming from the fact that a batch of summer dates had been abruptly cancelled. You don’t know what to believe these days, and the members of Van Halen aren’t really saying much more until Roth puts out a rather ominous video, assuring everyone the band is fine, just a little tuckered and in a need of time and space to reassess. Then Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen do some press, confirming all is good in Van Halen land. And more dates are announced for the Far East.

All the while, I’m a little on the fence about even going to see them. They come into L.A the first week of June, and I hear Roth is struggling with his vocals. Reports that his voice is a shell of its former self run rampant in my circle of rock geeks. I know he was never that great of a singer to begin with, so it’s no surprise. What Diamond Dave brings to the table is charisma, swagger, showmanship and quirky wit. I figure if that, along with Eddie’s guitar, Alex’s drums and Wolfgang’s bass, could bring me back to the days of yore, then it’s worth a shot.

Seated at club level in the Honda Center in Anaheim, I was already impressed with the crowd’s enthusiasm for the irregular opening act, Kool & The Gang. You can’t fool an arena if you’re a lousy act, and Kool & the Gang delivered with a roster of certifiable hits like “Fresh,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebrate.” As they finished their 45-minute set, the stage-wide LED screen on the backline flashed graphics of Kool & The Gang merchandise fans could purchase.

The stage was cleared and a crew of 10 or so laid out a wood panel floor for David Lee Roth to gyrate, spin and slide across on. Other than that, it’s all fairly standard stuff without extra props. Eddie’s got his five stacks of EVH cabinets, plus a little room down below to back it all up with. Alex has his four (or maybe it’s five) bass drum Ludwig kit. Wolfgang has a four stack EVH rig of his own. It’s not the over-the-top setup of the 80s, but it’s more than enough arsenal to get the job done.

At just a few minutes before 9:00, Alex Van Halen stepped up behind his set, sat down, hit the first drum and the place went dark, save for the notorious skin-beater basking in red light. Van Halen was in the house. “Unchained” lifted off with Roth a-scatting and EVH a-tapping. At a sudden break, the singer asked: “How you doing so far? One break coming up…” And they fell right back into it.

Roth was beaming that cat-ate-the-canary grin of his for most of the night, clearly happy to be back in the driver’s seat after his solo career sputtered, along with gigs as a paramedic and a DJ. How could he ever measure up to standing alongside Eddie Van Halen, equally all smiles for most of the night? No longer the shaggy-haired, bare-chested rock Adonis of 1984, Roth relishes in his front man role — twisting, roundhouse kicking, squirming and occasionally swinging around a large stick like a samurai baton twirler.

They burrowed their way through “Runnin’ With The Devil,” and then rolled out the first of tracks from A Different Kind Of Truth, the irrepressible “She’s The Woman,” which fit right into the set as if it had always been there (and it used to be). Even the much-maligned single, “Tattoo,” was well-received. For the most part, however, you could pretty much count on hearing every golden oldie in the classic Van Halen songbook — “Romeo Delight,” Everybody Wants Some,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the list goes on.

“China Town” grooved on that classic Van Halen rumble, while “Hear About It Later” is a keen reminder of how important Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen are as back-up vocalists. The loss of Michael Anthony’s high-pitched wail in the mix didn’t deter from the on-cue pipes of a father and his son serving the song without losing the flavor.

Alex Van Halen’s solo was funky and short enough to likely piss off those who ran off for cocktails, expecting a 20 minute break. On “You Really Got Me,” Roth began to slide into a sort of vocal abysses on the turnarounds, but his confidence and general vibe overcame all other obstacles. As long as the band kept firing away, he had nothing to worry about.“The Trouble with Never” was the last new one of the night before a string of more fan favorites were trotted out — “Dance The Night Away,” “And The Cradle Will Rock,” “Hot For Teacher.”

The show took a decidedly strange turn when the large LED, which had mostly been displaying bright black and white live images of the performance, suddenly cut to a running dog herding sheep, then cattle, which, as Roth explained while strumming an acoustic, are like “drunk hockey fans.” This is the Diamond Dave of today — an adventurer, an outdoorsman, a show biz veteran, a former rock and roll wildman who never was all that wild when compared to other rock and roll wild men. Schmaltz aside, the man wears his legacy well.

Roth reminded everyone he’s a regular guy rom Indiana who, as a young boy, enjoyed drive-in movies and a little ice cream, which, of course, segued nicely into “Ice Cream Man” and the return of Van Halen at full throttle, doused in strobe lights and in full color for the first time on the LED.

There were there no swinging vines during “Panama,” and EVH no longer slides across the stage on his knees. Instead, the guitarist sat down on the stairs in front of the drums as he bended and tapped out a flurry of notes, fluidly, brilliantly. He's battled cancer and other demons of the trade, but his playing abilities are undiminished. “Thank you very much,” EVH said into the microphone before dovetailing right into “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love.” The Honda Center came alive.

If there is any animosity in Van Halen, it wasn’t apparent as all four members lit up and pounded out this hard rockin’ anthem. “Everyone here having a reasonably good time?” How could you not. The band was so in sync. Roth announced: “Here’s the encore and we’re not leaving the stage.” And the confetti, round dark aviator shades and raccoon cap came out for “Jump,” complete with a hidden keyboard player likely camped out behind EVH’s stacks. A big hit for the band, no doubt; but not exactly a set-closing barnburner to match the intensity of the night.

Nevertheless, Van Halen exceeded all expectations, sounding as fresh and energetic as they did in the 70s and 80s. To think that in 1978, just over the freeway from where the Honda Center sits today, Van Halen parachuted out of an airplane (supposedly), landed in the parking lot of Anaheim Stadium, jumped into limos and emerged minutes later on a concert stage that would be shared that day by Boston, Black Sabbath and, believe it or not, Sammy Hagar and his own band. It was an eruption of rock and roll that hasn’t lost its power and its potency — four decades on.

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