It’s safe to say that Van Halen’s first 6 albums stand as one of the greatest winning streaks in rock history… It’s difficult to consider this band nostalgic, as those 6 albums have never gone long without a spin within my perpetually cycling playlist, but the fact is, they’ve gone decades since they were relevant in the moment… from my perspective, they haven’t been a band since 1984, that’s when the prolificness, the passion, the velocity… all but disappeared, as the mighty Van Halen morphed into something else. An argument on the Hagar years isn’t of interest here today, it’s enough to say that Sammy was never my cup of tea… But here we are in 2012 and Van Halen is immersed in a renaissance of sorts, which I witnessed first hand at Chicago’s United Center this past Friday night (video below), so it got me thinking… What would it take for me to see Van Halen as something beyond a nostalgia act?
Van Halen’s live show right now certainly leaves a lot of room for hope. Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang, VH’s version of two and a half men, are definitely playing well together, it’s evident that amongst these three, many hours of rehearsing have been logged. Uncharacteristically absent from the stage were cigarettes and booze… and if Eddie’s rediscovered timing, dexterity and endurance are any indication… he’s cleaned up a bit and gotten back to business. Brother Alex, as always, drives everything forward with the solid drumming that has been one of the few constants over Van Halen’s 30-year career… and that kick and snare, consistently one of the best sounding in live music… and after the show the other night, I have to say that I miss Michael Anthony a little less… Wolfgang’s bass playing skills have truly come a long way since we last heard him on the 2007 tour, his back-up vocals were spot on and he never missed a queue… I would guess he’s very aware of fans opinions regarding Michael Anthony and what his voice lent to that signature early Van Halen sound… one way or another, he did very well on all fronts… which leads us to Diamond Dave…
Many won’t agree with me, and I believe this is due to nostalgia, but David Lee Roth seems to me a performer who’s time has passed… the last 25 years on his own seems to have caused too much of that Las Vegas schtick aspect of his personality to come to the forefront… he’s lost his edge as the front man of a high-speed rock and roll band. Seemingly, much of that impression could be erased if he put in some serious practice time… but it was disappointing to me the sheer number of words that he forgot and annoying to listen to that bullshit scatting thing he does in their place. For example, “I’ve been to the edge… from there I stood and looked down… you know I lost a lot of friends there baby…” these words are sacred to this song and he completely changed almost everything about them… not in a good way either… because if you’re going to play (nostalgic) hits from your past… and you’re going to do it because you feel that that’s what your fans want to hear… then play them as recorded. It’s not like you’re Pearl Jam or Springsteen, constantly on the road, constantly messing with your setlist… Van Halen is playing pretty much the same 24 songs every night, and also of note is how similar the current set list is to the one they played on ’07-’08 tour, recommit ALL the words to memory Dave… for the amount of money you’re raking in at each of these shows, it’s the least you can do.
Diamond Dave in 1982 was the be all end all, don’t get me wrong… I remained a big fan well into his solo career as well as I quickly abandoned the Hagar-led VH… it’s the 2012 version of Roth that I’m worried about… Van Halen has always had lead singer issues… it’s too bad Mama and Papa Van Halen couldn’t have spit out one more kid with a fondness for the microphone and the limelight… One thought I had was perhaps the brothers should consider the same route they took on bass guitar and scoop up some younger frontman of a VH tribute band like the Atomic Punks, a hungry kid that would dedicate every spare moment to capturing every nuance of their recorded work… as opposed to a salty vet like Roth who’s perhaps too big of a rockstar to care enough to re-acquaint himself with the back catalog. I don’t know… the set list is a nostalgic one, so the point should be authenticity. Many will feel I make too big of a deal out of this, but that’s been the residual effect of $160 tickets… at least on me. If they were $35 I would care less who was fronting the band.
To Dave’s credit, he sounded good on all 4 of the new songs in the set from their latest “Different Kind of Truth” release. This leads you to believe that he’s just coming off of the recording of these songs so they’re fresh in his mind… which makes the fact that he’s forgetting words that he himself recorded on the earlier songs even more indicative of laziness, just seems unprofessional… also noteworthy is that the performance of these songs are recent and thus akin to his vocal range now, at 57 years old. Quite a few times he struggled to hit notes on songs from the early days.. just sayin’… but enough with the Diamond Dave bashing, overall it was a pretty satisfying show, which will always be the case when Eddie’s on his game.
Let me finish up with some praise for Diamond Dave as I say a few words on the new Van Halen studio release “A Different Kind of Truth”. My suggestion is that you give this record a couple listens if you haven’t already (free to do on Spotify)… Although there’s definitely throwaways amongst this albums 13 tracks, there’s also a lot of interesting music going on… Many have written that this or that song is reminiscent of demo’s from the early-80’s… but if all the songs form a nicely flowing album in the here and now… who care’s where (or when) the songs came from, let’s just be glad they’re here. Its been a mighty long wait.
The record starts with the album’s first radio single, “Tattoo” is a song that you want to dislike… but after hearing it a few times its got one of those choruses that you can’t get out of your head… a nice showcase for father/son backing vocals and sharing a kinship to “Yankee Rose” from Roth’s solo debut… I don’t know why I think that, it’s just the song that comes to mind… but from there things get more musically serious with “She’s The Woman”, a song that churns along Panama style and is also one of the new songs getting played on the tour. She’s the Woman features an incredible bridge that demonstrates the practice time put in by the 3 instrument playing members of the band… and credit really must be given to Roth for a really nice job with lyrics and delivery ‘…I wanna be your night in shining pick-up truck…” Classic Dave, he shows a really nice vocal flow on this track.
“You and Your Blues” is a song that starts out promising but then loses its way in the chorus as they inexplicably include a shout-out to the Stones with the lyric ‘19th nervous breakdown’ over and over. With “Chinatown” you get the opposite… the chorus sounds great but the melody of the verses doesn’t quite work… this song does feature great Eddie fretboard work and a classic Alex double-bass beat… so not all is lost. “Blood and Fire’ is just too poppy, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this song on a Richard Marx retrospective… The music of ‘Bullethead’ has a lot of promise but the lyrics are throwaway as you can’t help but wonder what the hell a bullethead is…
From there I would say that the next 4 tracks; “As Is”, “Honey Baby Sweetie Doll”, “The Trouble With Never” and “Outta Space” brings us back as close as we’re going to get to the origins of Van Halen. Intricate guitar lines, big double-bass rhythms, stellar backing vocals and straight on rock and roll vocals… This leads into “Stay Frosty” which is a kitschy song ala Ice Cream Man… if that’s your kind of thing, then you’ll like the song. You can already hear it as a staple on the next Diamond Dave solo tour once he gets himself kicked out again. The album then unfortunately concludes with 2 throwaway songs in “Big River” and “Beats Workin” which left me feeling that “Stay Frosty” should have been where the album concluded. But considering these 4 haven’t made an album together in 28 years, I look at “A Different Kind of Truth” as a solid accomplishment… it easily could have been worse and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sammy Hagar was regretting some of the shit he was talking a few months back as his autobiography was about to come out. Van Halen, both live and on record have turned in an admiral performance for a band on the tail end of its career… now we’ll wait to see whether the resurgence continues… or if this whole thing just turns out to be a one-off cash grab… hoping for the former, fearing for the latter.
If you’ve caught Van Halen for one of the stops on this current tour… please leave your impressions below in the comments… I’m very interested to know whether DLR works out his issues as the tour progresses. The only pictures I took at this show were phone pictures… not that hot, but here they are to check out.