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Five years into its reunion with frontman David Lee Roth, the 2012 version of Van Halen can’t simply play off the novelty factor anymore. And despite vocal shortcomings and some dodgy set-list decisions, Friday’s homecoming concert at Staples Center showed that this band can continue to be a touring force if its members so choose.
Much has been made about the sudden decision to postpone more than 30 dates on the current North American tour, including (gasp!) rumblings of animosity. But the quartet that features three late-fiftysomethings merely said its schedule was underthought and therefore overbooked. Regardless, this show went on — and it was so much pure fun that fans have to be looking forward to more.
The most glaring difference between Friday’s gig and Van Halen’s Staples show in November 2007 was the return of Roth as showman centerpiece. A half-decade ago, he was tentative about deploying the old shtick, opting to focus on his vocals rather than his stage persona and ceding the spotlight to reinvigorated guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. But that was then, this is now — and Vintage Concert Roth is back.
No, there wasn’t any Jack Daniel’s swilling, midair leg splits or (sadly) those trademark wailing vocal fills. And Roth’s onstage gymnastics mostly have been replaced by soft shoe (he used a roughly 6-by-8-foot hunk of buffed wood for spins, twirls and slides, though there were several impressive high leg kicks). But what the crowd got instead was good ol’ Chatty Dave. He told stories, made jokes, tossed in comments — and generally seemed to enjoy himself.
“It’s a homecoming — the full-circle kind of effect,” he told the crowd in the town the band broke out from in 1978. “So many people I haven’t seen in a long time. ‘Dave, Dave, Dave – it’s me. I’m a girl now.’” He later name-checked Malibu, Venice Beach and the Valley.
Roth’s old antics turned off plenty of people back in the day, but that was part of the classic act. And Friday night’s most throwback moment was the resurrection of Randy Dave for the first time here in nearly three decades: “Is that a video camera?” he asked a young lady down front. “You wanna make a sex tape?” Riotous.
Call it compensation: All that helped turn the focus away from Roth’s obvious vocal limitations, by far the roughest aspect of this show. He basically talked his way through the songs — for those who’d counter with, “Well, that’s what he always did,” there’s no comparison — though he occasionally reached back for a little extra. An example of that came during “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which featured probably Roth’s best singing of the night, as if he knew he couldn’t fake it when covering the Tortured One.
Whether any in the crowd were truly bothered — or surprised — by Roth’s lack of range is debatable. They lapped up his ad-libs, well-rehearsed or not. To wit: “I’m gonna brag a little bit: 42 days clean and sober,” he said, adding after a perfectly timed pause: “No, not in a row. Since Hannukah.” Later, during the intro to “Hot for Teacher,” he deadpanned: “I’m Mr. Roth, and I’ll be your substitute teacher today. If you’re barely a beginner, you’re in the wrong song.”
But it wasn’t just the singer who leapt into the wayback machine. Brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen don’t seem to have lost a step: the guitarist the epitome of sheer effortless virtuosity and the drummer a study in steadiness. Eddie seemed inspired by the chance to rip though the Roth-era oldies. The only replaced link in the chain is Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s 21-year-old son, who took over for Michael Anthony on bass in 2006. As on the previous tour, he mostly kept to himself, adding thick licks and strong backing vocals.
A more minor gripe about the concert is the set list, at least compared with the previous tour. Sure, it was fat with stone classics and a few choice album cuts — how was “Romeo Delight” not an FM smash? — but apart from new four songs from the band’s current album A Different Kind of Truth, there was only one vintage Van Halen number they didn’t play at Staples in 2007. And really, “Atomic Punk” and “Little Guitars” cut for “Hear About It Later”?
And for a band touring behind a genuinely good comeback album, it’s easy to argue with their choice of which songs to perform from it. “China Town” and “The Trouble With Never” are a shade north of perfectly adequate, but “She’s the Woman” is forgettable, and “Tattoo” isn’t as catchy as the group likely thinks it is. With all the old-school Van Halen tracks on the new album – think the rippin’, concert-ready “As Is” or “Outta Space” – “Tattoo” simply is an obvious lead single, as if they thought it might be a crossover hit. They could have attacked rock radio with a vintage Eddie shred-a-thon. You know, the kind of song that was absent during the dark Van Hagar years.
VIDEO: Van Halen Premieres “Tattoo,” First New Song With David Lee Roth in 16 Years
The main set ended with Eddie’s knob-twistin’, whammy-barrin’, jaw-dropping’ nine-minute guitar solo. It was bookended by “Eruption,” which got the cellarazzi going, with phones illuminating the hall as fans taped a live rendering of perhaps the most famous studio-recorded guitar solo in rock history.
“I’m still not used to this,” Roth said midway through the show. But Van Halen’s fans are, which begs a question: Where does the band go from here? Do they attempt another record? Just keep touring? Call it quits?
Maybe a hint came as they played “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks classic that became Van Halen’s first single. Roth and Eddie stood for quite a while absolutely nose to nose, separated only by their smiles. Perhaps it was just acting, part of the show; this was Hollywood, after all. Or maybe – just maybe – peace has come to Van Halen.
Runnin’ With the Devil
She’s the Woman
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Hear About It Later
Oh, Pretty Woman
You Really Got Me
The Trouble With Never
Dance the Night Away
And the Cradle Will Rock…
Hot for Teacher
Women in Love
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love
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