I’ve always loved music. When I was still forming inside my mother’s womb, I was dancing around at my dad’s band practices. I grew up exposed to the great Rock music of the 60’s and 70’s pumping out of my parent’s stereo, mostly from records and 8-track tapes. I was alive for vinyl, but was I young enough that most of my own records were Sesame Street related. By the time I started seeking out musical tastes of my own, the dawn of the cassette tape had arrived. Vinyl was still around, and I had many 45’s, but the new technology that allowed me to play a little tape on a little personal player called a Walkman sucked me in. The first cassette tape I owned was Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man”, a great album, which unfortunately is usually overlooked in favor of his earlier work.
My second album on cassette tape was one of the greatest Rock N’ Roll albums of all time, Van Halen’s 1984. It was the pinnacle of the band’s career, and contained many classic songs such as the mega-hit “Jump”, the sultry fun of “Hot For Teacher”, and the brilliant rock barrage of “Panama”. Despite the commercial success and critical acclaim of the album, the band was falling apart. Personality conflicts, differing musical visions, and side projects drove a wedge between the clashing egos of energetic front man David Lee Roth and guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, leading to Roth’s departure from the band and the group’s musical decline. Always being a huge fan of Diamond Dave, that’s also the point where they lost my allegiance.
Now 28 years after their last full album together, the Van Halen brothers and Roth have reunited, minus long-time bassist Michael Anthony, recording an album of new material, “A Different Kind of Truth”, and embarking on a tour of the same name. On Monday night, I went to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to see if three people who used to hate each other could re-capture the magic none of them have had since their breakup in 1985, while enlisting the help of a bassist who wasn’t even alive during their glory days.
First of all, I have to give proper recognition to Kool & The Gang. Everyone was shocked when the late 70’s-early 80’s Disco-Funk Party Band was announced as the opener for Van Halen’s 2012 tour. It’s hard to imagine the same crowd of people attending concerts by the two diverse acts. But in all fairness, Kool & The Gang are very good at what they do. Their somewhat antiquated party anthems are still catchy, and it’s hard not to sing along once you realize you remember the words to all of their hits. The aging members of the group still perform with the energy and intensity of their heyday. The 11-member ensemble showcased the talent throughout their roster, as they took turns singing and being the featured instrumentalist. Most importantly, the members seemed to have a great time, which couldn’t help but trickle down to the audience. They obviously love what they do, which makes it hard for the crowd, even a Hair Metal crowd, not to have a great time.
And then, after an unusually long wait, it was time for the headliners to take the stage. Would I regret taking a chance on Van Halen, or would they rekindle the love for their music I had as a child? Well, every group is as strong as the sum of its parts. Let’s examine the reassembled parts of this once well-oiled machine…
Most artists sound much better on their doctored up recordings than they do live in concert. This cannot be said about veteran drummer Alex Van Halen. I was immensely impressed with the 58 year-old man pounding his drums unmercifully harder, faster, and more intensely than drummers half his age. The rhythm section of Van Halen is often overlooked due to the attention grabbing boldness of Dave’s on-stage antics and Eddie’s over the top guitar work. I now appreciate Alex Van Halen’s skills more than I ever have. He really blew me away in every song, not just his impressive drum solo. He never sounded as good on tape as he does live.
Like most of the world, I scoffed when control freak Eddie Van Halen replaced longtime bassist Michael Anthony with his then teenaged son, Wolfgang, who wasn’t even alive during the band’s glory days. This move also gave the Van Halen family three votes on band-related matters rather than two, further forcing their influence on each decision, regardless of the current singer is. This being the 20 year-old's first full tour, and my not having heard the entire new album, this concert was my first taste of Wolfgang beyond the disappointing single “Tattoo”. Could he really fill the void of the band’s legendary bassist, replacing that all-important rhythmic backbone? Fortunately, Wolfgang did not disappoint. He does seem somewhat stiff and awkward up on stage, possibly worried his dictatorial dad is looking over his shoulder, and completely unsure of how to interact with Dave’s cartoonish but sleazy antics. All things considered, Wolfgang did a great job.
I was never much of an Eddie Van Halen fan. He always seems to look and act like an obnoxious creep. I’ve always agreed he is a great guitarist, but I’m not a huge fan of the whiny noises he makes with his guitar, especially when he started experimenting with power saws and other strange items. Apparently a guitar virtuoso like Eddie Van Halen has to be heard in person to be properly appreciated. His live playing won me over, and I’m not easily impressed. I can easily see why he is so revered in the world of music. He may not be the easiest guy in the world to work with, but his amazing, one of a kind guitar skills more than make up for any personality deficiencies.
I’ve always been a huge fan of David Lee Roth. Say what you will about him, and it’s probably true, but as a front man, a showman, he has few equals. He’s flamboyant, arrogant, showy, and maybe a little bit crazy, but all of that is what makes him a legend. He also makes more wardrobe changes than a runway model, but it’s all part of his charm. Dave’s voice is still as crisp as ever, belting out songs that never sounded as good with anyone else on the mic. He may have aged since his glory days, but his star has not faded, his spark has not gone out. Diamond Dave still struts around the stage like he owns it, and Monday night he did.
One highpoint for me of the concert was that they completely omitted the band’s pop songs from their commercially successful, but musically atrocious “Van Hagar” era. Diamond Dave is back. He is and always will be Van Halen’s front man. His charm, energy, and showmanship cannot be replaced without bringing Jim Morrison back from the grave. Another highlight for me was the new song “China Town”, which I had not heard prior to the show. Simply put, this new track rocks, and is much better than first single “Tattoo.” It’s by far the best Van Halen song since 1984, and one of their hardest rocking offerings ever. Of course, the biggest highlight for me was rocking out to the favorites of my childhood. They played every song I wanted to hear: “Panama”, “Hot For Teacher”, “Jump”, “Dance The Night Away”, “You Really Got Me”, “Pretty Woman”, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, “Beautiful Girls”, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, etc.
My brother in laws, neither of which were alive for the majority of Van Halen’s career, had a great time, one of which described the concert as “The greatest experience of my life”. I too enjoyed the concert. I went into it skeptical about Kool & The Gang and Van Halen re-capturing their glory days of the 70’s and 80’s, but both delivered without disappointment. I was worried whether Van Halen could put to rest their tensions, shake off the rust, and overcome the absence of Michael Anthony enough to operate as a cohesive rock unit. They did not disappoint me, far exceeding my skeptical expectations. They rocked their songs as if they hadn’t missed a day of playing together. They rocked the sold out Wells Fargo Center like a band of 20 year olds. I had a blast, liking Van Halen again for the fist time in decades. Apparently it is possible to travel back in time to “The Good Old Days”, at least for one night.
©2012 Denim McDemus
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