It has been 31 years since I last saw David Lee Roth front Van Halen on the Women and Children First Tour, when Valerie Bertinelli was sitting with the front of house sound guy and we were wondering who she was with, when Van Halen hit the stage at Bridgestone Arena Friday night at about 9 PM.

Kicking it off with a hard core Van Halen fan favorite, “Unchained,” it was definitely an interesting ride that really showed Eddie back on top of his game while David Lee Roth seemed to do a little soft shoe a la Gene Kelly meets Jaco Pastorius.

Wolfgang was wearing the stripes on his bass while Eddie was showing off his latest Ebony neck Stealth Wolfgang. Alex Van Halen sat behind a very classic Van Halen Ludwig kit with the four double deep bass drums in holographic silver. The only thing missing was the fire extinguishers.

It’s kind of a strange ride to see Van Halen come out as the elder statesmen of guitar pyro technic rock when it doesn’t seem that long ago that I saw them burst out as true revolutionaries on their own tour at Utah State University in 1979 the day Van Halen II came out. Back then, my jaw hit the floor as they started into “Light Up The Sky.” David Lee Roth came running off the drum riser at least 10 feet in the air and landed in front of the mic stand just in time to deliver the first line. Even today, that stands as a mark in time like the moon landing or the day the wall came down in Germany.

The things that I found interesting in this set was, that they didn’t shy from playing their Roth era radio hits, “You Really Got Me” and “Pretty Woman.”  The first original song to do moderately well on radio back then was “Dance The Night Away,” but, when Fair Warning failed to produce a hit and didn’t sell as well as Women and Children First, it was back to cover Halen, “Pretty Woman,” that turned things around.

Wynona Judd at The VH Show

Okay, impressions on Wolfgang, I had seen clips from the last tour, and seeing him now I thought, how cool is that? He gets to tour with his Dad who just happens to be one of the greatest guitarists of all time and he is only 18 or so. What he brings to the band, is his knowledge of what the fans want to hear and act as a balancing act between his Dad and Roth, who seem to play very well together in the sandbox nowadays. I think their egos are in some kind of balance now.

Eddie and Wolfgang did fine on backup vocals, but, Michael Anthony’s high as Frank DiMino background vocals were a part of the classic sound. Wolfgang doesn’t seem intent to do what Michael did on the bass. Michael was old school in that his bass propelled Alex’s bass drum and was so much in the same frequencies as the kick drum that it was hard to distinguish Michael, like where did the bass go? But, that was because he wasn’t sloppy. He was totally in sync with Alex.  What Wolfgang did show off was guitaresque Billy Sheehan harmonies on the new stuff, like”Chinatown.”  If I had to try to mind read Wolfgang, it would seem that he is itching to come out on guitar, but, the bass gig with Dad and Uncle Alex is a great place to be.

Alex had a somewhat brief solo, with pseudo big band tracks that reminded me a lot of Neil Peart solos over the last few years.  Alex is extremely underrated. He has what a lot of drummers lack now and that is the bridge between the original jazz drummers that is the core of rock drummers back then which was Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson then mixed with what he grew up with, Ginger Baker and Keith Moon and then throw in early 70’s contemporaries that had that swing groove, Brian Downey from Thin Lizzy and Frank Beard from ZZ Top.  Although it was a good solo, Alex’s high point for me was the Balance (Hospital) Tour.  It amazed me when Alex was wearing a collar brace and was literally not suppose to move his neck and I watched his hands snake all over the drums with no neck movement playing like a demented Gene Krupa – Billy Cobham. The Balance Tour is when my respect for Alex was cemented into my brain.

Of the new songs, “Tattoo,” did become somewhat of a sing along and people got it. There were plenty of 40 something Dads with 14 year old sons wearing matching Van Halen Concert T’s.  I had a couple of them with Dad in the row in front of me and when Eddie would take off on a solo, they would point and gawk much like I did in 1979.  Excellence never grows old. Speaking of excellence, last time I saw Eddie live was the Balance tour and I did enjoy it, but, Eddie was steeped in the Steve Lukather wet-dry-wet-, digital delay and processing and a lot of the edge was gone. For me, the highlight of the Balance Tour was the song “Amsterdam.” Now, Eddie is all about his signature stomp boxes, EVH Amps, his own guitars and the dynamics and definition were there. It sounded phenomenal, very tube old school, loved it.  There was only one step better and that was Van Halen II when Eddie toured with the 100 Watt Gazarri’s House Amp Marshall that he recorded the brown sound on.  But, this was fantastic.

Back during Van Hagar, Sammy had a clip when he played guitar alone on “When Eagles Fly,” on this tour we get to see Diamond Dave’s champion cattle and sheep dogs in black and white film as they compete and Dave talks about what the dogs could do before going into “Ice Cream Man.” Dave has always been larger than life on and off the road and this was about the most human I had ever seen Dave. It was very cool.

As far as Dave banter, he didn’t say he forgot the words, because he didn’t, but, he did say some great lines like,”A kid asked me if I had ever seen a screen as big as the one in the backdrop of the band?” to which Dave said “Oh yeah, we had one of those in Indiana out in a field, we called it a Drive In Movie.” One of my favorites was an old school reference when Alex kicked in the drum intro to “Everybody Wants Some,” and Dave started singing, “From the land of sky blue waters…” I think that was Hamm’s Beer.

There were definitely some songs I missed like “Light Up The Sky,” “I’m The One,” “On Fire” and “Top Jimmy,” but, “Hear About It Later” and “Romeos Delight” were great deep track shredders.

Eddie was not slacking at all, his solo which was kind of a “Variations on Eruption” thing, showed him spotlighted in front of the amps and then perching in his surfer kid hair cut on one of the drum riser stair steps. It had more the feel of seeing Eddie practicing on the end of his bed as a kid then a rock star running all over the stage. The camera was right on the neck in total focus showing what his fingers were doing on a giant back screen.

This tour has less set design and was more stripped down like the Balance Tour. It’s hard to express this, but, it felt like an intimate post card to true Van Halen fans in a big arena setting. In fact, it didn’t feel like an arena until the last song, ”Jump,” with confetti dropping out of the ceiling and Dave waving an oversized checkered flag. With Dave, there always needs to be something Texas sized about the show.

The band more than made up for Bridgestone Arena’s very poor acoustics. In this town, T-Pac or The Ryman is the place to really “hear” a band, but, if Van Halen did that, they would have been here all week long. The arena was definitely a near sell out.

- Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com

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