Concert Review: Van Halen

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In the spirit of full disclosure, I took my press seat at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre on Tuesday night anticipating a train wreck that had nothing to do with Amy Schumer.

Van Halen? With David Lee Roth? What was the over-under on the band even making it to the stage let alone completing a show?

History, at least my concert history, suggested that the already-fractured peace between guitar legend Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth could dissolve in the time it took the band’s original singer to open his mouth. Back in 2002—on the same stage—Roth so alienated the audience with vulgarities and unhinged vocals during his ill-fated “Sam & Dave” tour with Sammy Hagar (or as VH purists call him, that “other” front man) that people walked out in mid-set.

In the meantime, Eddie had battled everything over the past decade from substance abuse to diverticulitis; the health issues contributed to more than 60 postponed and/or cancelled shows during the last two VH “reunion” tours with Roth.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the meltdown to which I expected to bear witness: Van Halen decided to kick some serious ass.

From the opening finger-flicking-good chords of “Light Up the Sky” to the set-closing, crowd-pleasing “Jump,” Roth and Eddie not only gave peace a chance, they actually seemed to have fun doing it. Joined on stage by ageless brother Alex, who killed it as always on drums, and Eddie’s 24-year-old son, Wolfgang, on bass, VH tore through its pre-Sammy catalog like a band that, to borrow one of Roth’s lines, felt “skinny and f—ing dangerous” in the sweltering South Florida heat.

To be clear, Roth doesn’t really sing anymore as much as he “performs.” His forced vibrato often dovetails into a rock version of scat-talk, sometimes with non sequitur bursts that have nothing to do with the song. During “Everybody Wants Some!” he implored Eddie to drive the sound deeper into the “Okeechobee slime” before launching into a side story about how his parents used to threaten to “send me back to the Indians” for being disrespectful at the dinner table. OK …

But there was something charming about Roth’s showmanship at Perfect Vodka. Though he’s in marathon-runner shape, maybe turning 60 gave him pause. The arrogance that drove people to the exits 13 years ago was replaced by light-hearted buoyancy, an evening-long smile—and even some self-deprecation. Toward the end of “Dance the Night Away,” Roth acknowledged that people like to dress up as him for Halloween—so he gave the crowd tips on how to dance and preen like Diamond Dave, demonstrating the moves he’s borrowed from Jon Bon Jovi, Mick Jagger and Ozzy Osbourne. His Ozzy imitation even drew a chuckle from Eddie.

Speaking of which, the man many consider to be one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time looked every bit the part. Sporting a charcoal gray shirt and jeans, and salt-and-pepper hair, Eddie, also 60, conjured one unimaginable riff after another out of his signature line of guitars—including a late-show 10-minute solo, culminating in “Eruption,” that felt more like 1978 than 2015.

His backing harmonies with Wolfgang, meanwhile, were so straight-off-the-album pure, that Roth could rely on the crowd to provide vocals on several songs. Those harmonies came in handy later in the show, as Roth began losing his way at times. During “Dirty Movies,” which (along with “Drop Dead Legs”) VH hadn’t played live since the late 1970s, Roth admitted, “I forget the f—ing lyrics! … I remember the plot line, though.”

Closing with a rip-roaring stretch of classics that included “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “You Really Got Me,” and “Panama,” a band that, for a variety of reasons, always seems on the brink, did more than just hold it together.

Van Halen turned back the clock.

(All photos courtesy of Ron Elkman (ronelkman.com). For more photos from Ron, visit the “Concert Photos” link under A&E at bocamag.com).

Set List

Light Up the Sky
Runnin’ With the Devil
Romeo Delight
Everybody Wants Some!
Drop Dead Legs
Feel Your Love Tonight
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
She’s the Woman
China Town
I’ll Wait
Alex Drum Solo
Little Guitars
Dance the Night Away
Beautiful Girls
Women in Love
Hot for Teacher
In a Simple Rhyme
Dirty Movies
Ice Cream Man
Unchained
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
Eddie Guitar Solo
You Really Got Me
Panama
Jump