By Scott Essman
The PA system is about half the size of the early 1980s shows. The lighting rig is probably 25% of what it was. The stage setup has fewer platforms and ramps.
But Van Halen has lost little of the spunk, energy, and enthusiasm for live performing in the 35 years since the band was first signed to Warner Bros. Records. And despite the fact that the setlist had only four new songs, the rest of the tunes coming from the 1978-84 period, the band seems strangely relevant now a dozen years into the 21st century.
At downtown Los Angeles’ Staples Center on June 1, Van Halen were greeted by a sold-out crowd in something of a homecoming for a band who cut their teeth on countless mid-1970s gigs just a few miles away in West Hollywood. In their two hours onstage, they rekindled the sounds of the late 70s and early 80s while managing to sound reasonably fresh and vibrant, in a way, better than the 2007-2008 tour that brought singer David Lee Roth back with the brothers Van Halen, being drummer Alex and guitarist Edward, along with Edward’s bassist son Wolfgang, now 21.
Other than the Rolling Stones, what band besides Van Halen (who is still actively recording and touring) relies on live material from decades past while maintaining its integrity above those bands strictly relegated to the nostalgia circuit? Not many come to mind, and Van Halen must clearly be heralded as the top American act to do so.
At Staples, the band delivered a nonstop performance of both notable and deep cuts for a solid two hours. Selecting tracks from the new album “A Different Kind of Truth” which were cleverly peppered throughout the set, the band carefully chose a healthy dose of material from their first six albums to offer up yet another magnificent showcase of their recorded catalogue.
From their best album, 1981’s “Fair Warning,” one couldn’t argue with show opener, “Unchained” which also opened the 1984 tour, the last year that Roth was with the band in full until the 2007 tour. But even more impressive was the inclusion of that album’s “Hear About it Later” which hadn’t been included in their shows in over 30 years. That song is surely one of the best of the many deep cuts from that finest of Van Halen albums.
From their classic debut, always a favorite in all of the Roth-era tours, the band predictably included the Kinks cover “You Really Got Me,” the scorching album opener “Running with the Devil” (which followed “Unchained”) and their requisite interpretation of “Ice Cream Man,” plus what might be the quintessential Van Halen song, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” which the band has often described as their signature sounding tune.
“Van Halen II’s” presence was mightily felt with three of that record’s best tracks: “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” and the two album-closing back-to-back songs, “Women in Love” and “Beautiful Girls.” Perhaps Wolfgang, who lent a hand in choosing the 2007 tour’s songs, had input on adding “Women in Love,” as it features one of Edward Van Halen’s shining moments in that song’s opening instrumental section. More obvious was the addition of “Dance the Night Away” which is another popular tune from 1979.
The best of the night’s selections came from the third album, “Women and Children First” from 1980. That album might have the fewest traditional “hits” of any Van Halen record, but the band selected three of its best five tracks for inclusion in Los Angeles: “Everybody Wants Some!” has long been a concert staple; “Romeo Delight” is a burner which opened the 1982 Hide Your Sheep tour; “And the Cradle Will Rock” is something of a lost tune that was played on the 2007-2008 dates for the first time in 27 years and amazingly reappeared mid-tour this year.
If there is a quibble, it would be with the lone choice from the fifth album, “Diver Down.” The band played their interpretation of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and nothing else, despite that album’s 30th anniversary. Though this album is often marginalized, it contains what might be the band’s best in-concert version of an original album track with “Little Guitars.” Other deeper cuts would have been welcomed but were left out of the set.
Of course, the band’s biggest album, “1984,” was featured for its four biggest hits in that magical year when the band became colossal. “I’ll Wait,” “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher” and “Jump” were expected by the legions of fans who probably first learned of the band with that record. By the time of the closing song, “Jump” (which wasn’t even a traditional encore as the band did not fully clear the stage before playing it), Van Halen had delivered a show packed with superb musicianship and concert decisions alike, and the already adoring crowd seemed far from disappointed on any level while heading for the exits.
Of note about the musicianship: Alex Van Halen’s jazz-influenced solo might not have been as speedy as the old days, but he remains one of rock music’s most underrated drummers. Wolfgang does a greater-than-able job laying down the bass licks in the band and providing most of the backing vocals. But it is Edward who remains the star. Not simply the best guitarist in the world and one of the best to ever play the instrument, Eddie must truly be seen live to be believed; it is all the little things he does between the big moments which make him great. If the monster riffs and blistering solos weren’t already enough for him to stake his claim as the Michael Jordan of rock ‘n’ roll, it would be the interstitial elements he conjures onstage between a chorus and a verse or before a bridge which bring his playing to another level. And it must be said that he is playing better and looks better than he has in years, certainly another notch higher than on the 2007-08 tour.
Lastly, Roth, despite an encroachment on his 60th birthday, is still a vibrant, engaged, singular frontman and the perfect match for Edward’s virtuoso playing. The members showed no signs of infighting or discord. In fact, the band was mutually complimentary and all smiles and hugs onstage. For the massive fan base that the band has accumulated then and now, this can only be seen as a good sign of things to come.