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Van Halen has a blast at Staples Center

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen get in close for a chorus at the start of Van Halen's Staples Center opener. Photo: Armando Brown, for the Register.

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen get in close for a chorus at the start of Van Halen’s Staples Center opener. Photo: Armando Brown, for the Register.


Despite rumors of internal strife, the band was all smiles and rocking hard in the first of several Southern California appearances this month, including June 12 at Honda Center.


Last month’s news that Van Halen would be scrapping a chunk of tour dates this summer without explanation wasn’t too surprising. Controversy always seems to follow the band around.

Media outlets cited anonymous sources who claimed the cause was internal strife, but it could simply be a matter of the three original members (all pushing 60) over-extending themselves with a mammoth North American jaunt that started in February. Still, that’s a mighty financial loss for a concert run that was reportedly selling well across the board.

Whatever the reason, there were no obvious signs of tension or sluggishness among the Van Halen clan Friday night at a packed Staples Center in Los Angeles. Lead singer David Lee Roth skimped over lyrics at times, but he also did that earlier this year when I caught their dress rehearsal at the Forum.

“Unchained” served as the launch for the veteran Pasadena hard rockers’ highly satisfying hometown gig. Drummer Alex Van Halen initially emerged in darkness and dashed off a brief solo intro before the other guys joined in, jam style. Roth spun around, did a little soft shoe and appeared happily right by guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s side (where he would frequently return), scatting along to the revered axeman’s licks.

The two-hour, 22-song set touched upon all Roth-era albums, with an emphasis on 1978’s classic self-titled debut. All four tracks culled fromA Different Kind of Truth – the first full-length Van Halen collaboration with Roth in nearly 30 years – came across strongly live, especially the brawny rhythm and searing guitar work of “Tattoo.”

Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth strikes a pose at center stage as drummer Alex Van Halen rocks out during the band's Staples Center concert in Los Angeles on Friday. ARMANDO BROWN, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Keeping with the same basic running order as elsewhere on the tour, Van Halen included plenty of AOR radio staples, pop chart hits and deep album cuts to please both die-hard and casual fans in attendance. I witnessed some people going through air-guitar motions whenever Eddie engaged in another fast-fingered display of brilliance (“Hot for Teacher,” the full-steam-ahead charge of “Panama”).

On the minus side, a muddy sound mix at Staples was one of the worst in recent memory. Both Eddie and young bassist son Wolfgang’s backing harmonies often came to the rescue when Roth’s yelps could barely be heard, notably on “Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls” and their indelible cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

Halfway through the concert, Roth alluded to graduation ceremonies and jokingly anointed himself class president, valedictorian and pep squad commissioner at “Van Halen High School.” The latter title was definitely appropriate, since the fit and trim singer danced around, engaged in a few trademark leg kicks and demonstrated awesome martial arts-type moves using microphone stands, particularly during “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” and the standard show-closer “Jump.”

Randy as ever, Roth asked a gal filming his every move if she wanted to make a sex tape, then recalled a period in the band’s career when he spent most offstage time naked in the company of sexy ladies.

Alex did the requisite rock-show drum solo; mercifully brief, the tropical vibe (with programmed horns) was refreshing. Much later, Eddie’s longer guitar solo was breathtaking. Intensely focused, he proved those chops remain intact after all these years. Some trippy, late ’60s visual effects on the huge projection screen (Roth compared it to the size of an old drive-in movie theater) were a cool touch.

Another came during Roth’s solo acoustic guitar segment on the bluesy “Ice Cream Man.” With black-and-white home footage of his dog and sheep running around a field and hills, the vocalist narrated and professed admiration for the animals. Then the band gave it a powerful finish.

Despite previous announcements, some concert-goers still might have been puzzled to discover Kool & the Gang were handling opening act duties. VH actually used to cover the group’s 1974 Top 10 R&B hit “Hollywood Swinging” during its club days on the Sunset Strip, so there’s a long-standing affinity for their soul and funk.

In L.A., Kool & the Gang’s 50-minute, nine-song set was full of energy and got a welcome reception from the audience. Now featuring original members Dennis Thomas (alto sax), George Brown (drums), Robert “Kool” Bell (bass) and brother Ronald “Khalis” Bell (tenor sax), the 11-piece nonetheless had trouble getting some call-and-response action going with the crowd.

The current co-lead singers do an admirable job, but neither can compare to soulful tenor James “JT” Taylor, who was at the helm of this outfit during its commercially successful 1979-89 pop-crossover period. Standouts at Staples included the extended, groovy “Too Hot,” rock-leaning “Misled,” the sax duel during “Get Down on It,” a spirited “Jungle Boogie” (with a rap interlude by Prince Hakim) and a rousing “Celebration.”

Setlist: Van Halen at Staples Center, Los Angeles, June 1, 2012

Unchained / Runnin’ with the Devil / She’s the Woman / Romeo Delight / Tattoo / Everybody Wants Some!! / Somebody Get Me a Doctor / China Town / Hear About It Later / (Oh) Pretty Woman / (drum solo) / You Really Got Me / The Trouble with Never / Dance the Night Away / I’ll Wait / And the Cradle Will Rock / Hot for Teacher / Women in Love / Beautiful Girls / Ice Cream Man / Panama / (guitar solo-incorporates Eruption/Cathedral) / Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love / Jump

Next up: Staples Center again on June 9, Honda Center in Anaheim on June 12. Tickets are $29.50-$149.50.

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