When David Lee Roth sang the chorus of Van Halen’s “Unchained” Sunday night at SDSU’s Cox Arena, it was the moment that summed up the rocky 22-year hiatus since Roth departed the iconic rock band and the recent reunion.
Change means questions: Could Van Halen maintain the technical superiority that set it apart from the high tide of heavy metal bands in the early ’80s? Does Roth still have the pipes to hit the high notes? Can Eddie’s 16-year-old son, Wolfgang, fill the bass duties of one the best arena rock bands of the past 30 years? And most importantly, how long before the joy ride explodes into a fiery crash?
A lot of Van Halen fans, scorned and scarred by past titillations of a Roth-Van Halen reunion, asked themselves these questions as plans formulated for the current string of dates, Roth’s first tour with the band since his departure in 1985. The answers lie in the song: “You hit the ground runnin’.”
When you do, though, there will be times when you stumble. Case in point: During the breakdown of “Panama,” Roth mistakenly thought he was in the middle of “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love.” Or when Roth forgot the words to “So This Is Love?” during the first verse.
But through the two-hour, 10-minute sold-out show, Van Halen showed the musical dexterity and emotional ferocity that made the band the champs of arena rock.
Reprising his role as lead singer after a scattered and unsuccessful solo career, Roth’s vocals hit all the right notes. Gen X’s answer to the original blond-haired rock god, Robert Plant, the 53-year-old Roth beamed like a birthday boy, strutting and parading around the stage as if he owned it.
Roth was glam before glam was big, admired by head bangers and loved by women (with a healthy dose of ego thrown in). Now Roth needs the Van Halen clan more than ever. And, with the missteps of Gary Cherone and Sammy Hagar in the rearview mirror, the Van Halen brothers need Roth, too.
Eddie, the guitar god whose style of two hands on the fretboard produced the ethereal arpeggios that changed how we view the six-string instrument, looked happy to be onstage with his son, slapping him high fives and giving him encouragement throughout the show. The 52-year-old guitarist also appeared pleased to be sharing the stage with Roth. The two traded call-and-responses during the opener “You Really Got Me,” “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” and “Everybody Wants Some.”
Alex, whose steady drums have laid the groundwork for Eddie’s explorations throughout Van Halen’s history, anchored the entire show with precision. At 54, he is the band’s eldest member. But his age didn’t show in the blistering five-minute drum solo midway through the concert.
After the brothers Van Halen fired longtime bassist Michael Anthony in 2006, Eddie and Alex decided to keep it in the family by recruiting Wolfgang to handle bass duties. The young man held his own in the bright lights of Cox Arena, adding back-up vocals and his own take on the traditional VH bass lines.
Van Halen’s 24-song set fell into a couple of categories: the covers (“You Really Got Me” and “Pretty Woman”), the pop songs (“Dance the Night Away,” “I’ll Wait” and “Jump”) and the essential rockers (“Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama” and “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love). But Wolfgang, who chose the set list for the 45-date tour, added a few gems: “I’m the One” and “Atomic Punk” from the 1978 self-titled disc, “Mean Street” from “Fair Warning” and “Romeo Delight” from “Women and Children First.”
Thud Rock’s Two Headed Monster
Credit to a 1984 issue of Rolling Stone for the “Thud Rock’s Two-Headed Monster” from when they featured Van Halen in an issue. The focus was on the two monster egos of lead singer David Lee Roth and true guitar hero Eddie Van Halen. A few months before that I missed out on seeing Van Halen in the San Diego Sports Arena and I thought it wasn’t a big deal.
I was actually a late comer to Van Halen, as I didn’t connect with them until around late 1982. Once I got hooked, I’ve stayed hooked. Of course, a year later David Lee Roth had gone solo and Sammy Hagar was the replacement, so I never got to see Roth with Van Halen. Once they finally got around to re-uniting (23 flippin’ years later!) I bought tickets and decided to bring my two sons, ages 12 and 9. I’m making a habit of taking my kids to the once-in-a-lifetime shows. Some Van Halen die-hards would say it’s not a real reunion without bassist Michael Anthony but I really didn’t care about that. I was just glad to see the “Two-Headed Monster” back in action.
The show was scheduled for November 25 at the Cox Arena in San Diego State University, which was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. As the date for the show approached I really wasn’t fired up about the concert. We went and saw the Police in June (another show I’ve waited forever to see) and it was just OK, so I wasn’t expecting much from Van Halen. Once the date rolled around I’d gotten sick and spent most of the day on the couch sleeping. Of course, having paid over $80 per ticket we were going to go no matter how bad I felt. I’d read that the previous concerts were real loud so we brought some ear protection.
With ear plugs in and a ton of cough drops in my pocket Van Halen took the stage. Roth was grinning (he never stopped) and Eddie cranked out the beginnings to “You Really Got Me”. Quite quickly I was pumped up and began to see energy from the band that was sorely missing from the Police show in June. The set list (see below) was awesome and I’d heard that bassist, Eddie Van Halen’s 16 year old son, Wolfgang Van Halen had picked the songs. I wasn’t expecting “I’m the One”, “Romeo Delight” or a few others. It was a set list that a hard-core Van Halen fan could appreciate.
Some of the highlights included some of Roth’s story telling, the beginning of “Ice Cream Man” (featuring Roth on acoustic guitar) and Eddie’s continued guitar domination. It was great to hear all the classic Van Halen songs with the right guy singing. Roth comes out on stage and acts like he never would want to do anything else. To me, he’s the ultimate rock star. He’s not the greatest singer, but he has amazing presence and is a real showman. For a guy who’s 53 he really didn’t show it at all. He also slipped in some Who and Cream lyrics to a couple of songs.
Over the last few years, many concerts don’t seem to focus on the musicianship. I actually was glad to see a lot of guitar solos, including one lengthy one and a lengthy drum solo. Both extensive solos were refreshing as most newer bands don’t have a guitar solo much longer that 5-10 seconds. I’d like so see more concerts where bands try to show off their musicianship. I don’t care about long solos but let me see that you can really play.
In summary, the show was well worth seeing. I’m so glad Roth has reunited with Van Halen and I might try and see them again in LA or Anaheim. In my opinion it’s not that big of a deal that original bassist Michael Anthony isn’t with the band as the stars are Roth and Eddie.
It was quite loud and Roth loves dropping the F-bomb quite a bit. Another negative is that Roth forgot some lyrics and paused too much, letting the backup vocals through. I also don’t understand why Eddie Van Halen decided to not wear a shirt through the whole show. Nobody’s perfect but it was great to see a show where the expectations are surpassed.
Set list from 11/25/07
01. You Really Got Me
02. I’m the One
03. Runnin’ With the Devil
04. Romeo Delight
05. Somebody Get Me a Doctor
06. Beautiful Girls
07. Dance the Night Away
08. Atomic Punk
09. Everybody Wants Some
10. So This Is Love?
11. Mean Street
12. Pretty Woman
13. Drum Solo
15. I’ll Wait
16. And the Cradle Will Rock
17. Hot for Teacher
18. Little Dreamer
19. Little Guitars
20. Jamie’s Cryin’
21. Ice Cream Man
23. Guitar Solo
24. Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love