|Photo by Armando Brown|
A version of my review originally ran at soundcheck.ocregister.com
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. It could have simply been 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 on 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 the Forum dress rehearsal.
“Unchained” served as the launch for the veteran Pasadena hard rock band’s highly satisfying hometown gig. Drummer Alex Van Halen initially emerged in darkness and did a brief solo intro before the other guys joined in, jam style. Roth spun around, did a little soft shoe and was 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 record. All four tracks culled from A Different Kind of Truth – the first full-length Van Halen/Roth collaboration in nearly 30 years – came across strongly live, especially the brawny rhythm and searing guitar work of “Tattoo.”
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 satisfy both the diehard and casual fans in attendance. I witnessed some people going through the 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 vocal harmonies often came to the rescue when Roth’s yelps could barely be heard (“Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls,” Kinks cover “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 (“Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” standard closer “Jump”).
Randy as ever, Roth asked a gal filming his every move if she wanted to make a sex tape and 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-thru movie theater) were a cool touch.
Another one came during Roth’s solo acoustic guitar segment on the bluesy “Ice Cream Man.” With black and white home film 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.
Concertgoers might’ve been puzzled to discover Kool & the Gang was handling opening act duties. Van Halen actually used to cover the group’s 1974 top 10 R&B chart hit “Hollywood Swinging” during its club days on the Sunset Strip, so there is a long-standing VH affinity for the soul/funk music.
In LA, Kool & the Gang’s 50-minute, nine-song opening 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 had trouble getting some call and response action 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 during the commercially successful 1979-89 pop-crossover period. Standouts at Staples included the extended, groovy “Too Hot,” rock-leaning “Misled,” the sax duel on “Get Down on It,” spirited “Jungle Boogie” (with a rap interlude by Prince Hakim) and rousing “Celebration.”
Van Halen, Staples Center, Los Angeles, June 1, 2012
Setlist: 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, June 9; Honda Center, June 12. Tickets are $29.50-$149.50 plus fees, www.ticketmaster.com