Slideshow: Van Halen saves the best for Anaheim
The Monday morning after Van Halen's June 1 opener at Staples Center I tuned into KLOS, the only genuine classic-rock radio station left in this market, just to see if Mark & Brian might be chattering about the show.
Sure enough, the moment I punched up 95.5 in my car, the longtime morning jocks were already deep into fielding phone-in reviews from conflicted listeners, warning future Honda Center ticket-holders of a potential letdown a week and a half later.
Every call was nearly identical, the consensus virtually unanimous: Eddie Van Halen rarely played better, David Lee Roth never sang worse.
The former, seemingly happier and healthier than he was during the other VH reunions –with Roth in 2007 and his more exact but less interesting replacement Sammy Hagar in 2004 – was still a jaw-dropping marvel, as lightning-fast yet fluid as he was in his younger heyday, overflowing with effortlessly tossed-off six-string wizardry only the likes of Jeff Beck or Steve Vai can match.
Roth, on the other hand, reportedly clipped off phrases, flat-out forgot verses, bungled big notes and didn't seem fully engaged in the performance until it was half-over.
Neither opinion surprised me. I was among the 300 or so industry types invited to Henson Recording Studios to check out one of Van Halen's final rehearsals for this tour, bolstered by their first album in nearly 30 years, a hodgepodge of finished-off leftovers dubbed "A Different Kind of Truth." Much the same thing was evident there.
Once the initial thrill of seeing them together again, with Eddie's 21-year-old son Wolfgang adroitly handling bass, you could easily spot cracks that needed a bit of sonic putty: drummer Alex Van Halen was often too slack for the pace brother Ed desired, Roth had too much between-song shtick and not enough on-the-money vocal heroics.
I suspected plenty of people would come away mildly disappointed at every stop on this run, which replays tonight at San Diego's Viejas Arena and wraps up sooner than originally planned five cities later in New Orleans. Rumors have swirled as to why the band has cut short such a lucrative and well-attended tour; most people figure it's old tensions creeping in again, or perhaps Roth simply can't cut it at 57 the way he could when he was 25 (but who can?).
The reality, Eddie revealed this week to USA Today, is that "we bit off more than we could chew. This record took a lot out of us. And we went on tour earlier than we wanted to so we could play Madison Square Garden (in March, before a renovation), and that threw the schedule out of whack." He insists they will tour the Far East later this year and possibly be back stateside with something more for 2013.
By then, I bet they're as great as they ever were – for Tuesday night at Honda, they were virtually spot-on. I know people who went to both this show and at least one of the Staples gigs, and they agree: O.C. was not only the best crowd of the bunch, but for their response they received the strongest performance of the run.
Roth sensed that fairly early during the Anaheim set: "You're getting a good show tonight!" he declared.
It wasn't an empty boast: Roth was very much on his game here, minimizing the corny/porny banter (hard to discern much of it anyway) and making a more concerted effort to put across classics from all five of the quintessential early VH albums with greater oomph and care.
Yes, he'll fiddle with the meter of a line or switch up a lyric here and there, but he takes no more liberties than Mick Jagger does with Stones staples or Steven Tyler would with Aerosmith's finest. He's entitled to mix it up, and seeing as he proved again and again in Anaheim how easily he can nail high notes (he superbly scatted several times in his upper register), it would seem that only fatigue or laziness could explain his less-stellar L.A. performances. At Honda Center he was occasionally imprecise but not because he couldn't execute the songs; it was a conscious choice.
Why'd he turn his booster jets on for this show, with even wilder roundhouse kicks and better-timed asides to the cameras capturing every moment for a (mostly) black-and-white video backdrop? Beats me.
But Tuesday night he was the same Diamond Dave I idolized as a teenager: fleet-footed like a hard-rock Fred Astaire, shimmying and sliding across the stage, pouring his permanent-playboy persona into every song without letting that gum up the sheer force of raucous chants like "Everybody Wants Some!!" and "Hot for Teacher" and more boot-stomping bits like "And the Cradle Will Rock ..." and "Runnin' with the Devil."
Besides, whenever he'd get too caught up in his own reinterpretation, Van Halen's three namesakes just blasted ahead, rhythmically rubber-band-tight and greatly bolstering every hollered yet harmonized chorus (although I still wonder if some off-stage vocal sweetening isn't involved). They seized attention with "Unchained." They thundered away on "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" and a remarkable blitz through "Hot for Teacher." They made "Romeo Delight" sound like a new song yet played "Truth" tracks like "Tattoo" and "China Town" like they'd be in the catalog all along (which, in a sense, they had).
Frankly, there are few happier sights these days on a concert stage than seeing the Van Halen family rockin' away with one of the most memorable frontmen any group has ever had. He's still got it, they're as solid as ever – and here's hoping they get some much-needed rest so that this no-longer-tentative return can carry on.
Kool and the Gang, meanwhile, were an inspired choice for warm-up act. By set's end, people who back in the day wouldn't have been caught dead humming along to "Celebration" were shouting "woo-hoo!" as if their best friends had just been married. Indeed, the crowd was up and grooving well before then, dancing enthusiastically to certifiable funk classics like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" and heartily responding when "Get Down on It" added in guitar flavors ï¿½ la Ernie Isley.
Kudos to Roth for insisting the Gang tag along: What seemed like a misstep on paper has turned out to be one of the smartest arena-level pairings in years.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org