Years ago, Van Halen famously imploded amid the usual internecine rock and roll warfare, but at Scotiabank Place Wednesday night it was soon clear that despite all those years apart, the band is still as tight as David Lee Roth’s pants.
Reunited and slightly reconfigured – bass player Michael Anthony is gone, replaced by Wolfgang, the son of guitar god Eddie Van Halen – the band tore through a 23-song set in under two hours. The fiftysomething trio of Dave, Eddie and brother Alex Van Halen, on drums, may not have the volatile energy that made them stars back in 1978, but they’ve lost nothing musically. They still pack a punch, though these days it’s thrown more by Eddie’s furious fingers, and less by Dave’s acrobatic vocals.
The two of them appeared entirely comfortable together on stage, despite the years of animosity, and that’s the way it should be, for Dave and Eddie can only fully be Dave and Eddie if they’re together, as two forc
es alternately attracting and repelling one another and finding creativity and energy in the tension. There’s “Diamond” Dave, the peacock lothario frontman who lets it all hang out, and then there’s Eddie, the quiet, quasi-reclusive whiz bang of a guitar player. Without both forces on stage, the band could never really be Van Halen.
Dave (only first names used here, what with all those Van Halens about) almost did let it all hang out mid-show, during the song Tattoo. He pulled down his pants — black leather, cross-stitched, tight and sparkly, a bold choice for a 56-year-old man — and showed off a tattoo on his butt. It was a gun, and on the giant, stage-wide screen behind him it looked as big as a Howitzer. Dave did more showing off later, and it revealed that he’s not still entirely the incorrigible hedonist. As he strummed the acoustic guitar notes of Ice Cream Man, he showed a video of his border collies and spoke of them lovingly as they expertly herded sheep and cattle. When the video ended he quipped, “I’m the only rock and roller who owns livestock for non-recreational purposes.”
His voice was good enough, though without its former range, and nowhere was it more clear than on Beautiful Girls. The song, from way back in the 1970s, was always a grand example of his vivacious vocal power — all yowls and yelps among the devil-may-care lyrics like “I’m a bum in the sun and I’m havin’ fun,” a line surprisingly well suited to a 27 C day in Ottawa in mid-March. Dave couldn’t hit the high notes on the chorus, so he did what any wise frontman would do: he held out the mic and let the audience sing the words.
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, March 21. (Photo by Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen)
Otherwise his voice was enough to belt out a setlist full of classic rock-radio staples, including Running With the Devil, Dance the Night Away, Hot for Teacher, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, and Panama. Also in were the band’s two massive-selling cover versions, of Roy Orbinson’s Oh, Pretty Woman and the Kinks’ You Really Got Me.
Curiously enough, those two covers may be the most effective examples of Eddie’s signature sound. In both cases he managed to take a song that was universally known in its original version, and make it his own merely by pumping the riffs up to about a thousand pounds pressure.
An Eddie Van Halen riff is something tremendously sharp and electric, a wild thing on a leash that only he can hold. Near the end of the show he did a six-minute guitar solo — a tired tradition, but worth seeing when it’s Eddie, especially displayed on a giant screen where you can see it up close. His fingers move so fast that they cannot be measured by science or technology. There’s more to guitar than speed, of course, but speed is something that Eddie does uniquely, and exceptionally well.
The audience lapped it up, reveling in the reliving of their youth, (judging by the average age of those in attendance, which was surely north of 40). Everybody stood up during the first song, Unchained, and stayed on their feet for the rest of the show.
Dave played to the fans shamelessly. He was energetic and animated, and predictably full of camp — kicking the mic stand up onto his shoulder and strutting, promenading, with swagger in every step. When the show ended with (of course) their biggest hit, Jump, Dave even gave up a couple of high kicks. They weren’t as high as they once were, but it’s impressive that he can still do them at all. If any other man that age in the building had tried a kick like that, his groin would have landed in Belleville.
Running 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
Hot for Teacher
Women in Love
Girl Gone Bad
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ About Love