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Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tuesday, Nov. 20
“Are you guys having as much fun as we are?”
The question posed about 15 minutes into Tuesday’s show at Staples Center was Arena Rock 101. But it was delivered by David Lee Roth as he fronted Van Halen, which meant the world to the aging headbangers who had waited 22 years for this night.
For the record, the answer from the crowd that was on its feet the entire night: “Oh yeah.”
The original members of Van Halen — sans bassist Michael Anthony, replaced by Eddie Van Halen’s 16-year-old son, Wolfgang — simply tore it up during the first homecoming stop on their reunion tour. The sheer novelty of seeing Roth and Eddie onstage together might have been enough for many in the sold-out crowd, but the two-hour slugfest they delivered was genuine sweaty fun.
Back in the day, a Van Halen concert presented a dilemma: Who do you watch? Did you follow the wild-maned, high-kicking frontman who swaggered and staggered around the stage while threatening to defile the girlfriend of some wasted lout in the first few rows? Or did you study the most influential guitarist of his generation, the guy whose flying fingers and virtuosic tapping launched a thousand ’80s metal bands — maybe 100,000.
It’s different now because Roth has reined in his act. Sporting leather pants and unbuttoned toreador jacket, he deployed an older man’s version of those old leg kicks, but he didn’t even attempt the trademark shouts and squeals that peppered those half-dozen killer albums from 1978-84. His infamous cockiness and narcissism were all but absent, and he didn’t address the crowd much; still, it was a kick to see Roth back in his natural habitat.
The band that once defined rock excess onstage and off has resurfaced as a study in joy. There were more smiles onstage than an Up With People halftime show as Roth relished his long-dimmed spotlight and Eddie Van Halen was free to shred again. The obvious pride and glee he showed in sharing the stage with his boy invigorated his work. As if shaking off the long national nightmare that was the band’s post-Roth years, he tore into his solos, often tweaking them just enough to make the air guitarists look bad. He was simply outstanding.
A natural highlight was his thrilling 11-minute guitar solo that included most of “Eruption” and plenty of knob-twisting shenanigans. It was a reminder of just how little Eddie Van Halen has really let loose since the Roth era.
Wolfgang mostly sidestepped the spotlight, but his playing was meaty and his backing vocals sturdy. And the kid already has picked up on a rock requisite: tossing picks to the female fans. Atta boy.
The set list was peppered with songs that enjoyed heavy rotation on FM radio and a handful of album cuts for the hard-core. The gents got playful during “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” tossing in physician rapid-fire references from “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Rocky Raccoon” — seemingly just to see if anyone was paying attention. Eddie assumed the faux-pained guitar-god expression during the speedy, shoulda-been-a-hit “Romeo Delight,” which included a snippet of the Who’s “Magic Bus” during the breakdown.
If only Roth and Van Halen could have stuck it out for all those years like Daltrey and Townshend.
The band returns to Staples on Dec. 14 and plays Dec. 18 and 20 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
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