Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love: Van Halen is Good Enough, but Newly Renamed Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Remains a Losing Bet -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Van Halen
w/ Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
July 24, 2015

Note to self: Stop patronizing--ever!--the eternally shitty "shed" down in Tinley Park, IL. 

Newly rechristened the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, the outdoor concert venue remains the abomination it was when named the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, Tweeter Center, New World Music Theater, World Music Theater and otherwise known as "that crappy joint down in Tinley."

Before I go on bitching, let me be clear that it is technically not the venue's fault that it took me 2 hours to reach it from my home in Skokie--it is quicker to attend shows in Milwaukee--and, even with relative brevity in exiting a parking lot that in the past has taken hours to escape and without much tollway traffic, essentially 1-1/2 hours to get home. 

I also appreciate the Live Nation-owned shed's policy of including general parking in the ticket price--though $30 Premium Parking is prominently promoted--when there really would be no choice but for attendees to pay parking fees of any exorbitancy. 

And while my consternation is genuine, the truth is that nothing truly terrible transpired at the Van Halen concert on Friday night. If this is my worst entertainment experience of the summer, let alone ever, I will consider myself an extremely fortunate man. 

That said, one might reasonably expect that in the 8th row of the pavilion's 200 sections--basically the second half of the paviilion, but relativelly close to the stage--it wouldn't be so challenging to clearly see and hear the performer. 

Believe me, I've hated the joint under any name for years, not just due to its inconvenient location, or because it is inordinately bland and sterile, but due to the worst acoustics I've experienced--repeatedly--at any of the hundreds of concert venues I've attended in Chicagoland and far beyond. 

In 2010, I took advantage of really cheap tickets to see Aerosmith from the lawn of the then-First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre with some friends, and reviled the atrocious acoustics so much that--like now--deriding the venue took up the bulk of my review

Already disinclined to hit Tinley except for really cherished acts not playing anywhere else nearby, I decided that I would only go there if I could get tickets in the covered pavilion, which seemingly offers much better sound than back onto the open-air lawn. Such was the case in 2013 when I saw Depeche Mode with predominant satisfaction, and Radiohead in 2012.

But even with a seemingly "good seat" for Van Halen, I often couldn't see the band through heads in front of me--suggesting the pavilion isn't properly sloped; I didn't have this issue with the Rolling Stones at Milwaukee's Marcus Amphitheatre, even in bleacher seats behind the pavilion.

Coupled with the annoyance of the guy behind me constantly leaning into my personal space and screaming "Eddie!" about 50 times--often indiscriminately--partway through Van Halen's set I politely asked an usher if I could sit in an empty seat 3 rows up and 1 section over.

Unfortunately, the young usher between sections 201 and 202 told me, "No," which even if upholding policy seemed like bullshit given the imposition it would have had on exactly no one else in the universe.

Even worse than my sightline was, again, the sound.

As Van Halen took the stage--following a nice set from Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band, highlighted by a closing cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"--the first thing I jotted down as they launched into "Light Up the Sky" from Van Halen II was:

"Terrible mix."

Eddie Van Halen's guitar, which sounded muted all night, almost to the point that I preferred Shepherd's playing, blended too much with his son Wolfgang's bass and his brother Alex's drums.

Some of Eddie's riffs and solos are so good and iconic that they powered through the acoustic problems--"Feel Your Love Tonight," "Dance the Night Away," "Unchained," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" all delighted--and though David Lee Roth's diminished vocal skills are well known, they weren't intolerable.

For people sitting in the right spot, hearing the music at the right levels--or not caring if not--it may have been a highly enjoyable performance.

Though I can't help but reflect on my entire experience, which made for a show I more endured than holistically enjoyed, I don't want to downgrade Van Halen too much for factors perhaps beyond their control (though it would seem their crew may be complicit in not ameliorating the acoustic issues at a notoriously challenging venue).

In fact, it says a lot about my regard for Van Halen that I not only ventured down to Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre by myself--I attend lots of concerts alone, but this is one of the places where I'd prefer company--but that I was far from miserable, just not as pleased as I was hoping.

Or at least wanted to be.

Beyond the sonic quality, the music sounded much more good than bad, with a well-planned setlist mixing up songs from all seven of the Van Halen albums recorded with David Lee Roth on vocals.

A now rather hulking Wolfgang Van Halen, still taking the place of Michael Anthony as he has since his dad welcomed Roth back in the fold in 2007 but booted the founding bassist, plays a good bass and has improved his replication of Anthony's important-but-underrated backing vocals. 

Roth was in good spirits, but unfortunately the acoustics blunted my ability to understand almost all of his stage patter, save for a mention of L.A. Pink's Hot Dogs during a story about him missing a plane, which he told amidst an initially solo acoustic "Ice Cream Man."

And though I really didn't need to hear another Alex Van Halen drum solo, at 62 it doesn't seem that his power is diminishing.

So although this was my 7th time seeing Van Halen with any lineup, and my 4th show by the current foursome since 2007, it's not inconceivable that I would like them a good deal more at the United Center or Allstate Arena, and perhaps might go again, such being my sentiment for a seminal band in my childhood embrace of rock 'n roll.

But I didn't entirely love their 2012 gig at Allstate, and even giving deference to sight and sound deficiencies impeding my enjoyment on Friday, I also couldn't help but sense that maybe Van Halen just isn't that exciting anymore.

Though I never saw the band with Roth in their initial up-through-1984 incarnation, I sense he's far from the kinetic frontman he once was, and certainly less the singer.

And while Eddie remains the guitar god of my generation, during his long solo with flourishes from and/or reminiscent of 1978's "Eruption" and 1982's "Cathedral," I couldn't help but wonder why he seemingly hasn't--at least to my awareness--hatched any iconic new tricks in all these years.

Still, my ceaseless affinity for the best of Van Halen--including the show-closing "Panama" and "Jump"--made for much music I was happy to hear yet again during the band's 2 hours on stage.

That I still liked the show as much as I did despite the drive, sightlines, sound, unkind usher, dude yelling "Eddie!" in my ear--even when EVH was off-stage--etc., etc., makes me feel @@@@ (out of 5) is a fair rating, even if my own overall enjoyment was a bit less.

I'm not certain I need to see the same band another time, but I certainly won't in the same place.

Coincidentally, with my disdain for the venue in my mind as I shlepped back to my car--the parking lot logistics are another mess--I checked my email on my phone and had a message from Live Nation for "Van Halen Fans."

I thought they might be telling me of a newly announced VH show elsewhere, but instead were offering $29.50 pavilion tickets for Def Leppard at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.

Although I like Def Leppard, saw them at the venue in 2009, wouldn't mind seeing them again and couldn't help but note a rather good value for pavilion tix, I have now let the special "2-day offer" pass by unanswered.

I'm sure I'll continue to be tempted; such is how much I love certain artists that may wind up being booked at my most-loathed venue on the planet. But with due regard to Van Halen, Friday night served as a good--or I guess, bad--reminder of why I hope never to go to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (or whatever it may be called in another few years) ever again.

Now if only I could remember that.

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