By music writer Keith Spera
Young rockers who sipped warm beer in arena parking lots during Van Halen’s 1980s heyday are now on the far side of 40 and likely to be married, with children. Like its audience, Van Halen has also matured.
The tour that concluded at a less-than-full New Orleans Arena on Tuesday was, in essence, the latter-day Van Halen’s nostalgic victory lap. Vocalist David Lee Roth and brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen patched up differences and tamped down demons to mount a lucrative – and, literally and figuratively, clean — tour.
The production was minimal, save a massive screen worthy of a drive-in movie theater. Roth’s jokes about drinking aside, alcohol was reportedly banned from backstage. The unpredictability of the past has largely been eliminated, unless you count the abrupt cancellation of the tour’s final leg.
Essentially, two opposing dynamics were at work Tuesday: The Van Halen family band, and the campy Roth cabaret. The three Van Halens – Eddie, Alex and Eddie’s 21-year-old son Wolfgang, the band’s current bassist — went about their business with workmanlike professionalism, providing songs with structure.
Roth, meanwhile, staged his own, separate vaudeville song and dance schtick with the toothy grin and oily charm of a television evangelist crossed with a used car salesman. In sparkling black pants and matching vest, he slid and spun about his own wooden dance floor. He twirled microphone stands. He high-kicked.
And in the show’s early going, he took extreme, and unfortunate, creative liberties. In the opening “Unchained” and “Runnin’ With the Devil,” he drastically altered the cadence, tone and lyrics of the original anthems. Coupled with a muddy sound mix, his vocals were unrecognizable. “I’ll Wait” and “Dance the Night Away” also suffered from his cavalier approach, which apparently has been his hallmark since the ‘80s.
His ego knows no bounds. The video screen displayed slow-motion replays of his high-kicks. Late in the set, apropos of absolutely nothing, he strummed an acoustic guitar while narrating footage of himself running his sheep dogs (“I love dogs. Anybody here with me?”) Eventually, his canine reverie segued into “Ice Cream Man.”
But when the opposing dynamics intersected – as in “And the Cradle Will Rock,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Panama” and elsewhere – the result was Van Halen 2012 at its most potent. Roth’s musings in “Hot For Teacher” – “I’m Mr. Roth, I’ll be your substitute teacher” – worked, if only because the song was originally built on his spoken-word character.
Alex, his eyes hidden behind his trademark sunglasses, was dependably forthright. Wolfgang was a capable rhythmic partner for his uncle. More crucially, he filled in the high background vocals previously supplied by former bassist Michael Anthony.
And so it went through a mix of classics and a generous sampling of this year’s “A Different Kind of Truth,” the first studio album with Roth since “1984.”
As a Neil Peart drum solo is to a Rush concert, an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo is to a Van Halen concert: A showcase by a master of the form.
Eddie has not always lived up to his reputation. During a September 2004 Van halen concert in Biloxi, Miss., featuring Sammy Hagar on vocals, Eddie was a mess. Shirtless and manic, his playing was tossed-off, erratic and sloppy to the point of embarrassment.
Eddie has, over the past five years, essentially been rebuilt. As detailed in a recent Esquire profile, his battle to purge himself of a lifelong dependence on alcohol – and then the pills meant to wean him from the booze – left him in a near catatonic state. He relearned how to communicate with humans again. At 57, he sports titanium hips and a tongue twice cut to excise cancer.
During his first, fully sober tour, he may no longer fly by the seat of his pants, but he’s also far less likely to fall on his rear.
For his eight-minute solo, alternately seated and standing, he bore down and focused as he methodically built upon the themes of “Eruption,” the 1978 instrumental that introduced him as a major, pyrotechnic talent. Video close-ups of his hands revealed the precise finger-tapping and hammer-ons required to produce his signature cascade of notes and controlled firepower. It was the most genuine moment of the night.
For the final “Jump,” Roth wielded microphone stands like swords, donned a captain’s cap and paraded with a huge checkered flag amidst a shower of confetti. The Van Halens, meanwhile, played out the song. They all clasped hands for a final bow, united, in the end, for a common purpose.