Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Van Halen at Madison Square Garden

Now that the Oscars are finally out of the news, I'm suddenly thinking about next year's awards. I'm hoping there's a new Best Actor category, shared by Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth for their incredible performances last night of "Pretending to Not Hate Each Other."

As one of the most accomplished rock bands in the world, Van Halen had a lot to prove at their first New York show of their 2012 tour. Was the new album worth reuniting for? Is Eddie really is as much of a mess as Sammy Hagar's tell-all made him out to be? Does Roth still "have it?" What were they thinking by kicking out Michael Anthony (still the band's best singer, ever) and taking Eddie's son out of school to replace him?

They didn't prove much, but they confirmed maybe the most important thing about the band. Few humans have ever been able to make anything seem as much fun as Van Halen playing instruments.

For all their ups and downs, there's no denying how much the Van Halen brothers, particularly Eddie, love what they do. Ear-to-ear grinning, the band matched the audience's enthusiasm with surprisingly acrobatic performances of all their hits. Launching into "You Really Got Me" straight on to "Runnin' with the Devil," Van Halen lived their songs like there was--no tomorrow, playin' at a--pace that kills.

A few songs from their reunion album were sprinkled in, sounding much like '70s Van Halen demos (most likely because that's what they are.) A Different Kind of Truth is a respectable comeback, but nothing asserted Van Halen's vitality more than their parade of can't-believe-it-sounds-this great classics. From the biggest hits ("Panama," "Jump") to the groundbreakers ("Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," "Unchained") to the just plain great songs ("Dance the Night Away, "Everybody Wants Some!!," everything, really,) Van Halen spent most of two hours reminding the sold-out crowd of how they got to be the biggest--and best--arena rock band in the world.

Only a handful of musicians can claim Eddie Van Halen's influence and inventiveness, and the performance of his signature "Eruption" argued that there's no end to it. Pushing 60, it'd surprise no one if his solos started drifitng into prolonged self-indulgence. But Eddie's fretboard magic is still one of the greatest marvels in all of music. His legendary tapping skills and wild soloing were downright unworldly, improvised yet somehow reigned into actual songs. Joe Satriani, Stevie Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen will go on claiming that they've caught up in the speed and shredding wars, but none of them, for musicianship or songcraft, will ever match Eddie Van Halen, still one of rock music's only geniuses.  

The night's two biggest surprises, however, were from the bassist and singer. I'd assumed that Roth would be Van Halen's trump card and Wolfgang the weakest link, when really it was the opposite.
Wolfgang has grown into a confident performer and a surprisingly strong singer. His basslines could've been played by any studio musician, but his synergy with his dad and uncle was warm enough to convince me that he could complement the band better than anyone outside of Anthony.

Roth, however, seems further away from planet Earth than ever before. He can be forgiven for not reaching the high notes or high kicks, but he ad-libbed too many verses (whether or not he meant to) and bantered with pointless stories about his dogs, his tattoos and his Puerto Rican girls. Like Mick Jagger in the '80s, Roth's ego has overcome his capabilities, and while his clowning still is a big part of his appeal, it doesn't go as far as taking liberties with the words to "Hot for Teacher."

Still, as Chuck Klosterman recently wrote, the worst that David Lee Roth could do for Van Halen is not show up. Dave and Eddie have never been at their best without each other, and as much as they both resent that fact, thank whatever force brought them together last night.

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