Last Night: Van Halen at Toyota Center

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Van Halen Toyota Center January 28, 2008

Better Than: “My fellow Americans, you and I both know the State of the Union is pretty fucked up. Let’s all just listen to Women and Children First.”

Download: You do realize this is Van Halen, right? Their fans think “downloading” is something you do to get merchandise off a truck.

Call it a cultural difference. Most of Van Halen’s peers or immediate predecessors – Led Zeppelin, the Who, Eric Clapton – are firmly grounded in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition: even amidst an especially wicked guitar solo, you’ll never see ‘em sweat. Meanwhile, vocalists like Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey don’t so much play to their audience as slightly above it, like these noble gents deign to entertain us for a spell, and us lumpen types should consider ourselves lucky. With good reason.

But Van Halen is from Hollywood, baby, and the recently reconfigured rockers never let the sold-out Toyota Center crowd forget that for a second Monday night. Besides possessing a decent set of pipes and one of the quickest wits in rock and roll (really), David Lee Roth is a born entertainer, much closer to Tom Jones or Neil Diamond than, say, Ozzy Osbourne. He may not fly around the stage anymore – no self-respecting insurance company would even dream about underwriting that at his age, and besides, that ceased being cool once Garth Brooks did it at Texas Stadium – but he can still bust out those over-the-head karate kicks like Elvis (my friend counted nine), and nobody twirls the microphone stand quite as smoothly as ol’ Diamond Dave. Not even Steven Tyler, but Steven Tyler would also never wear the sort of pistolero jacket that made Roth look a little like Steve Martin in Three Amigos.

“Is everybody having a reasonable time tonight?” he asked after the furious hard-rock boogie of “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.”

They were.

None moreso, perhaps, than the brothers Van Halen and son/nephew/new bass player Wolfgang, who spent the evening cracking a series of bemused smiles. And why not? Their family business, rocking, sounds like it’s in fine shape indeed. Speed-metal sprint “I’m the One,” from 1978 debut Van Halen, followed opener “You Really Got Me” at a flat-out gallop, and Eddie Van Halen – in cargo pants, sneakers and shirtless – was off and running. “Running With the Devil,” naturally, and Wolfgang couldn’t help his sheepish grin when Roth cued him for those famous introductory bass notes.

Eddie’s issue did seem a little dazed up there – you would too, if you were 16 and the bass player for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band that just happens to include your dad and uncle – but he had to carry a bigger load than people may realize, and he shouldered it well. Because his dad spent most of his time playing anything but chords, approaching each song's melody the way someone like Miles Davis would, Wolfgang had to act as rhythm guitarist as well as half of a rhythm section that sounded like construction equipment – rattling, rumbling, lumbering – much of the evening. Uncle Alex was all sunglasses and doo rag on the big video screen, and his drumming shook the very bowels of the Polk Street arena.

Now back to Eddie. For all his virtuosity, before they discovered synthesizers on 1984 - which dominated the show’s second half; “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” both killed - most of Van Halen’s hits hung squarely around a basic three-chord blues foundation: ones they wrote like “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” (is there any American male between ages 25 and 45 who doesn’t instantly break into air guitar when they hear that opening riff?) and ones they didn’t like “Pretty Woman.” This deceptively simple formula gave Eddie almost boundless room to explore his fingerboard, and by the time his valedictory extended solo rolled around – I’m no Guitar Player subscriber, but here are a few of the musical terms I flashed on during those 10 or 15 minutes: “tremolo,” “arpeggios,” “harmonics,” “tapping (w/drumstick),” “fucking with his [tone] knob” – he had given all the people in the crowd who analyze “Eruption” and “Cathedral” to the last sixteenth note more than their money’s worth.

But Van Halen have always known that while some people go to their concerts just for the guitar solos, not everyone does. Every time the set threatened to veer a little too far into guitar-geek land, they yanked it firmly back toward the middle with a big, fat crowd-pleaser like “Beautiful Girls” or “Dance the Night Away.” Roth was even sharp enough to rap out the introduction to that last one en espanol. And so the cradle was rocked. That’s showbiz!

Personal Bias: The first time I really remember Van Halen is going to my friend Scott’s after Sunday School and listening his 1984 tape for hours while we played Atari or electric football. I still think the cigarette-puffing cherub is one of the best album covers of the ‘80s.

By the Way: Roth is quite the raconteur, prefacing “Ice Cream Man” (my new favorite Van Halen song) with an extended monologue about his suburban youth in Pasadena, California, passing joints in a circle at his friend Kenny’s house and something about a Mexican girl named Arlene sitting in his station wagon in front of her house. It was long, but the payoff when the other three Van Halens kicked in was huge.

Random Detail: Roth and Eddie were both absolutely ripped. Wolfgang could stand to lose a few pounds. – Chris Gray

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