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Live Review, 6/3/12: Van Halen Finger-Taps Its Way to Glory at Oracle Arena

By Dave Pehling | SF Weekly


Better than: Any of the still-touring Sunset Strip hair-farmers from the 1980s that Van Halen inspired.

There aren’t too many ’70s-era hard-rock bands that can inspire the kind of unabashed hedonism — a “bring me the skull of Sammy Hagar filled with tequila” type of wild abandon, if you will — as Van Halen with original lead singer David Lee Roth. During the band’s initial heyday, which stretched from its scorching 1978 debut through Diamond Dave’s famously acrimonious departure after the 1984 album and tour, Van Halen served as the soundtrack for infinite teenage bacchanalia in the backs of countless boogie vans. Strange, then, that the scent of sauerkraut and relish on hot dogs overpowered the weed smoke in my section of Oracle Arena Sunday night for the first of Van Halen’s two Bay Area concerts, as opening act Kool & the Gang tried to get the party started.

Maybe it was a sign that all the hardcore VH fans were outside reliving their Heavy Metal Parking Lot dreams, blazing bowls and shotgunning beers like they were still in high school, instead of shaking what their mama gave them to “Jungle Boogie” and “Ladies Night.” Or maybe it was the idea of starting Monday morning with a Van Halen-sized hangover that encouraged temperance in the aging audience. As weird as the choice of opener Kool & the Gang seemed on paper, things made more sense while watching the veteran soul band crank out a tightly choreographed string of hits. Why not kick off an evening dedicated to throwing down with party music of a different stripe? The crowd-pleasing group kept many of those gathered on their feet gyrating and waving their hands in the air through “Get Down On It” and the inevitable set-ending groove of “Celebration.”

When the headliners finally took the stage with a minimum of fanfare, the near packed-house was primed for a good time. A brief drum intro from Alex Van Halen served as brother Eddie’s cue to bound from the darkened back of the stage, crunching out the unmistakable opening riffs of “Unchained” to a warm roar of welcome from the crowd. And like the drunken, ne’er-do-well uncle at a wedding reception that has spun out of control, Roth took center stage, happy to serve as master of ceremonies.

For all the rumors of feuding in the wake of the band’s recently postponed summer tour plans, Dave and Eddie showed no signs of bad blood onstage. Sporting wide grins, the pair traded scatted vocals and guitar licks face-to-face during the song’s bridge before the en masse audience shout of “One break, coming up!” brought the band crashing back in for a thunderous conclusion.

It was after Eddie’s son Wolfgang delivered the ominous opening bass thump of “Runnin’ with the Devil” that the first sign of what became a nagging issue throughout the show surfaced. Roth has always been guilty of taking some liberties with lyrics and vocal melodies during live performances, but his half-spoken delivery of the song relied far too much on audience participation to carry the tune.

It wasn’t that Roth couldn’t hit the notes when he tried, as he proved on his more faithful renditions of “She’s a Woman” and “Tattoo,” from the band’s new album A Different Kind of Truth, or on the cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” It’s understandable that age would force Roth to swap his once trademark leaps off the drum riser and mid-air splits for the sliding, soft-shoe routine he currently employs, but it would have been nice if he’d refrained from the full-blown Sinatra-style reinterpretation he so frequently indulged in.

Whether Roth’s vocal shortcomings made much difference to the audience was clear. The crowd ate up his goofy onstage shtick and comic banter between songs while deliriously reveling in the ferocious instrumental execution of the rest of the band. Blazing thorough the classic tunes like “Romeo Delight,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” with precision and fire, the multi-generational triumvirate of Van Halens gave the audience exactly the kind of musical pyrotechnics they craved. Some of the more lightweight fare (“Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls”) could have been jettisoned for edgier songs “Mean Streets” and “Girl Gone Bad” that were inexplicably dropped from the set after early inclusion on this tour, but few fans would quibble with the tune selection.

On bass and backing vocals, Wolfgang seemed content to turn in his solid support in the background. But young Wolfie showed off some prodigious licks that the departed Michael Anthony would have been hard pressed to duplicate: He and his father ripped through the hammer-on heavy intro to “Chinatown,” arguably the most aggressive song on the new album. For his part, Eddie Van Halen remains a gifted freak of nature. Relaxing on the stage steps in front of his brother’s drum kit near the end of the show, the guitarist unspooled an arsenal of tricknology that still sets the head reeling, more than 30 years after he first rewrote the rules of the instrument. If anyone had a complaint after his solo tour de force, which touched on the studio showcases “Eruption” and “Cathedral,” it would have been that just five minutes of Eddie alone was about 10 minutes too short.

Critic’s Notebook

Personal bias: I saw the 1984 tour as a teenager at the Cow Palace and it is still one of my favorite fractured teenage concert memories.

Random notebook dump: Did DLR really just invoke the Saturday Night Live cowbell sketch?