Monday, April 02, 2012

An Imperfectly Satisfying Performance by Van Halen in Rosemont -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Van Halen
with Opening Act:
Kool & the Gang
April 1, 2012
Allstate Arena,
Rosemont, IL

It might sound foolish or far too fawning, given how far removed Van Halen is from their original David Lee Roth era heyday, but I entered the Allstate Arena on April Fools' Night expecting nothing less than a @@@@ (out of 5) show.

Sufficiently satisfying but at the same time somewhat disappointingly, that's what I got.

Certainly, there was an overt air of nostalgia for me and presumably many among the assembled mass of paunchy middle-aged men in black t-shirts (a well-faded "The Loop" shirt brought a grin of recognition to my lips). Van Halen was one of the great bands of my youth, with Eddie Van Halen's extraordinary guitar playing and David Lee Roth's rakish charm & flamboyant fashions making the So. Cal foursome--especially in my early teenage years--even cooler than AC/DC, Aerosmith & Rush and eminently more badass (in every way) than Journey, Styx & REO Speedwagon.

Although the current tour, ostensibly supporting Van Halen's surprisingly stellar new album A Different Kind of Truth, already played the United Center in February, seeing them at the pre-naming rights Rosemont Horizon--where I've attended more concerts than anywhere, dating back the longest--also added a sense of sentimentality to the evening (although when I first saw Van Halen, there, back in 1986, Sammy Hagar had already replaced Roth as the lead singer).

But having seen the band's first "reunification with Roth" tour twice in 2007-08 and awarding both shows the equivalent of @@@@1/2--in my own database; I wasn't blogging much then--I didn't head to the Horizon Sunday night hoping to catch merely a watered down oldies act.

And thanks primarily to Eddie--who looked healthy, sober and happy while routinely wreaking both thunder and lightning from his guitar--the show was better than that. In addition to his astonishing solos--though more so the briefer ones--I will never tire of hearing his magnificent riffs on songs like "Unchained," "Dance The Night Away," "Panama" and "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love."

Though Eddie's brother, Alex, is likewise in his late 50s, he remains a propulsive drummer and while I still have a problem with Eddie's choice to excise original bassist Michael Anthony from the reunion in favor of his son Wolfgang Van Halen, it was clear that Wolfie has clearly grown since the last tour as both a bassist and vocal harmonizer.

I've long had a love/hate opinion of David Lee Roth, who even as one of rock's best and most unique frontmen oft seemed to let his goofiness stand in the way of being even better as a singer and lyricist. Like seemingly most Van Halenites, I always preferred Roth to Hagar, but I also appreciate that Sammy--while himself often opting to dumb things down--wrote and sang songs that Roth never could.

Last night it was clear that Roth's vocals have continued to devolve. Though he always tended to frequently speak his lyrics rather than really sing them, here his phrasing was way off from the originals and at times he seemed off-pitch. In still exuding his uniquely caddish charm as a frontman, Roth's subpar singing wasn't enough to ruin the classic songs in a live setting, but it did occur to me why a live DVD was never issued after the last tour.

To their credit, the band seamlessly incorporated a few new songs into the setlist (see it here on, though I actually could have taken a couple more off A Different Kind of Truth, such as "As If" and "Outta Space." At the same time they went a bit beyond the most obvious back catalog choices by including "Everybody Wants Some," "Jamie's Cryin,'" "I'll Wait," "Women in Love" and "Beautiful Girls."

So while I would have liked to have heard "And The Cradle Will Rock," it really wasn't the setlist nor Roth's singing that failed to lift this show from one I couldn't help but enjoy to one I truly loved.

This is hard to enunciate, especially as the smiles on the faces of DLR and EVH suggested that they truly were enjoying themselves, yet somehow the concert felt methodically joyless. Yes there were a few setlist tweaks from earlier shows on the tour, and Roth offered some offbeat anecdotes, but the whole thing felt just a bit too perfunctory and scripted. Given their musical talents and the relatively simple lighting/video accompaniments, there's no reason Van Halen couldn't shake things up a bit more. Why not pull out "Fools"--from 1980's Women & Children First--for April Fools' Day?

On any given classic song, Van Halen still sounded great--especially when the music and our memories drowned out Dave--and they played several of them. But whatever the bridge between a concert filled with great songs and a truly exceptional concert--in my mind, a bit of surprise and spontaneity is a big factor--Van Halen didn't cross it. Even Eddie's 8-minute guitar solo (video below) was pretty much what I expected, and Alex's drum solo was especially so.

In fact, or at least opinion, the freshest thing about this Van Halen show was their choice to have Kool & The Gang open for them on the current tour.

Though one might not have expected much of a fan-base crossover, the near capacity crowd was generally seated early and seemed to show sincere appreciation for originating bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and his band, even if James "JT" Taylor, the singer from their days of peak popularity, was missing.

From set opener "Fresh," to the closing four-pack of "Jungle Boogie," "Ladies Night," "Get Down On It" and  "Celebration," the crowd seemed to eat it up and heartily sang along as they got ready to be rocked by Van Halen.

And from the opening chords of "Unchained," I had a fist-pumping good time for enough of Van Halen's set to suggest that any other acolyte catch them while they can. They don't make rock bands like this anymore and even at their baseline standard, they were still fantastic compared to many bands one might see. (As I'm writing this, I'm listening to a band called "fun." that I'd read some decent things about. Yecch, do they sound saccharine and nowhere near as fun as the most mundane song VH played.)

Still, in trying to offer a fair analysis, the band that basically defined "Arena Rock" kind of did so last night to both the upside and downside of the connotation. Though they can still make the joint "Jump," one doesn't quite sense that Van Halen is "Runnin' With the Devil" anymore. (Hmm, Eddie's prodigious guitar gifts, a rather soulless show; could it be a deal was made at the Crossroads?)

Here's Eddie's extended guitar solo:


SteveofReno said...

Excellent review, Seth. I was there and you hit it on the head. I wish Dave would sing a little more, even at the cost of hamming it up a little less. I wonder if the rest of the band feels this way. I think he can do it, because he definitely hit some high notes with his trademark vibrato. But just speaking the lyrics or phrasing them a la Frank Sinatra was a bit dissappointing to me. That said, all in all it was still a great show, by definition. After all, it was Van Halen!
Thanks for the great writing and alanysis of the concert.

Anonymous said...

Hi Seth, I flew over from the UK to see this show as I did for the reunion shows in 2007 (Vegas) and 2004 (Rutherford NJ) after the Van Halen's decided World Tours would only involve touring USA & Canada (they last played in the UK/Europe back in 1995) I wish the Van Halen brothers would remember where they were born! Perhaps someone will give them a World atlas so they can tour beyond North America again!! Anyway to the show and your review, I can't really disagree much, it was great to see em again after 5 years and I enjoyed the gig although I too was on the whole very disappointed with DLR's performance. Lets face it the guy is not and never has been a great singer but was an exceptional entertainer but at Rosemont I don't think he even managed to do that well. Some songs were good but others were so dire it detracted from the delivery by the other VH's on stage. On the whole listening to various punters walking out after the show I'd say that about 75% thought it was a stunning and amazing VH show (not sure how many of those had seen the band many times before but from the comments I overheard many didn't seem to know much about the band so I assume there were not many who had seen the band pre 1984 as you & I have) there was a stronger more opinionated and knowledgeable 25% who like you and I loved the show but really highlighted DLR's poor performance. This was debated long into the night by a large contingent I was with in a nearby bar until 3am post gig and the same conclusions were being drawn that you shared above and which I agree with also in that he simply completely screwed up several songs for no obvious reason. He is still fit enough to perform after getting in shape for the 2007 tour, lets face it prior to that he couldn't kick his way out of a paper bag and embarrassed the hell out of himself on the Sam/Dave joint tour, but credit where its due he dragged himself back from that awful situation & got in shape to make the 2007 tour a success and since then they finally recorded a half decent album even if by reports most of it is rehashed from ancient pre 1984 demos rather than fresh new material. So I wonder if he is starting to lose the limited vocal ability that he has to be able to perform live, lets face it most singers if they don't look after themselves begin to lose their range in their mid 50's although others like Sammy, Alice, Geddy, Bob Plant etc still have very strong voices despite losing a bit of their range but they often recognise this by selecting the set to match their older vocal ranges or as Gillan/Coverdale do now get the crowd to sing for them or get the band to play solo's to cover the lack of vocal ability. I don't think DLR is quite that bad yet as he did sing well on some songs but his performance at Rosemont makes you start to wonder, maybe Rosemont was just a bad show, have you managed to see any other shows this tour? Is the DLR issue more widespread than Rosemont's gig? I hope not as I'd like to think the band having bitten the bullet and put out new material might be more of a continuing going concern rather than this being a one off money spinner before permanant retirement. I'm also stupidly hopeful the band will finally tour the UK/Europe again although I'm not holding my breath on that.

Nige, England