By GEORGE A. PAUL / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Last month’s news that Van Halen would be scrapping a chunk of tour dates this summer without explanation wasn’t too surprising. Controversy always seems to follow the band around.
Media outlets cited anonymous sources who claimed the cause was internal strife, but it could simply be a matter of the three original members (all pushing 60) over-extending themselves with a mammoth North American jaunt that started in February. Still, that’s a mighty financial loss for a concert run that was reportedly selling well across the board.
Whatever the reason, there were no obvious signs of tension or sluggishness among the Van Halen clan Friday night at a packed Staples Center in Los Angeles. Lead singer David Lee Roth skimped over lyrics at times, but he also did that earlier this year when I caught their dress rehearsal at the Forum.
“Unchained” served as the launch for the veteran Pasadena hard rockers’ highly satisfying hometown gig. Drummer Alex Van Halen initially emerged in darkness and dashed off a brief solo intro before the other guys joined in, jam style. Roth spun around, did a little soft shoe and appeared happily right by guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s side (where he would frequently return), scatting along to the revered axeman’s licks.
The two-hour, 22-song set touched upon all Roth-era albums, with an emphasis on 1978’s classic self-titled debut. All four tracks culled from A Different Kind of Truth – the first full-length Van Halen collaboration with Roth in nearly 30 years – came across strongly live, especially the brawny rhythm and searing guitar work of “Tattoo.”
Keeping with the same basic running order as elsewhere on the tour, Van Halen included plenty of AOR radio staples, pop chart hits and deep album cuts to please both die-hard and casual fans in attendance. I witnessed some people going through air-guitar motions whenever Eddie engaged in another fast-fingered display of brilliance (“Hot for Teacher,” the full-steam-ahead charge of “Panama”).
On the minus side, a muddy sound mix at Staples was one of the worst in recent memory. Both Eddie and young bassist son Wolfgang’s backing harmonies often came to the rescue when Roth’s yelps could barely be heard, notably on “Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls” and their indelible cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
Halfway through the concert, Roth alluded to graduation ceremonies and jokingly anointed himself class president, valedictorian and pep squad commissioner at “Van Halen High School.” The latter title was definitely appropriate, since the fit and trim singer danced around, engaged in a few trademark leg kicks and demonstrated awesome martial arts-type moves using microphone stands, particularly during “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” and the standard show-closer “Jump.”
Randy as ever, Roth asked a gal filming his every move if she wanted to make a sex tape, then recalled a period in the band’s career when he spent most offstage time naked in the company of sexy ladies.
Alex did the requisite rock-show drum solo; mercifully brief, the tropical vibe (with programmed horns) was refreshing. Much later, Eddie’s longer guitar solo was breathtaking. Intensely focused, he proved those chops remain intact after all these years. Some trippy, late ’60s visual effects on the huge projection screen (Roth compared it to the size of an old drive-in movie theater) were a cool touch.
Another came during Roth’s solo acoustic guitar segment on the bluesy “Ice Cream Man.” With black-and-white home footage of his dog and sheep running around a field and hills, the vocalist narrated and professed admiration for the animals. Then the band gave it a powerful finish.
Next up: Staples Center again on June 9, Honda Center in Anaheim on June 12. Tickets are $29.50-$149.50.