I’ve liked Van Halen since my early teens and must admit (guilty secret time), that if you asked me to trade places with any man – it would be David Lee Roth, their lead singer. Annoyingly good looking and amazingly agile during his ‘dance routines’ along with it – didn’t hurt that he was also very funny…... After Roth left VH, I followed both his and the band’s careers and saw the latter support Bon Jovi at Wembley Stadium back in the Sammy Hagar days. Strange gig – Eddie was struggling with his hip (waiting for a hip replacement operation – fer chrissakes - our heroes should never be allowed to get old) and Alex had some sort of whiplash injury than meant he was wearing a neck brace – but they were still very enjoyable all the same! I also got to see DLR on a couple of his solo tours – so managed to see him in all his pomp, full of acrobatic high kicks and other escapades (surfing through the crowd on a giant surfboard, to get back to the stage, having abseiled into a boxing ring in the middle of the auditorium, to perform a song)! Like many VH fans, we read Dave’s autobiography, which included the quote that “Eddie Van Halen without a guitar in his hands, is a pretty crummy person” and nobody could see them getting back together – especially after the abortive attempt that produced two new songs for a greatest hits album in the mid/late nineties. The fact that they have managed to bury some differences and have found a way to tour together is either a big surprise or an indication that all parties need the cash badly enough to make it work. The current reunion has lasted since 2006 and even produced a new album – 2012’s ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ which was both a critical and commercial success.
My wife and I booked a holiday to California and to my joy, I found that this coincided with the tour – we would be in San Diego around the same time as the band, so we booked a couple of tickets to go and see them. I’ll be honest; the band’s most recent release was ‘Tokyo Dome Live In Concert’ and it’s not necessarily a good advert for them. The press I had read about the album indicated that the band had felt they were playing well, so it was over to Dave to pick the performance he liked most and on choosing this one, all parties felt it was good enough to leave pretty much as it came off the soundboard that night. All I can assume is that Roth was showing off the fact that he is fluent – there were lots of monologues in Japanese (he should be as he now lives in Japan), which don’t add anything to the album for the non-Japanese speaker and shorn of the party atmosphere that he generates at shows, all you were left with was the impression that David Lee Roth – not a great singer in the band’s late 70’s/80’s heyday – is now even worse. This album left me looking forward to the gig but desperately hoping that his skills as a frontman (as opposed to singer) remained undiminished. Allowing for the fact that he was almost balletic in his dancing when I saw him back in the 80s – I didn’t think the now 61 year-old could perform at the physical level that he used to, so I was approaching with some trepidation!!
The Sleep Train Amphitheatre was the venue for the San Diego show – but it’s actually about 20 miles outside of the city, in a town called Chula Vista. It’s an open air venue and the ticket states that the concert will proceed regardless of the weather conditions. Being California in September, you can be fairly confident that the weather will be good. Suffice to say though, it does seem a bit weird going to a show in shorts and flip flops!! The venue is amazing – there is a food area, selling any variety of cuisine that you could wish for and multiple bars so you don’t really have to queue for ages for food or a beer, like you would in most British venues that could host a 20,000 seat concert. I’d criticise the venue for not having any sort of lighting which meant finding your seat in the dark could be tricky – that said, most people have a mobile phone so you can use the light that produces, even if you don’t have a torch app. It’s a nice touch to have a beer holder on the back of the seat in front.
The seats were spacious enough (for the ‘larger American physique’) that you could stretch out a bit. More importantly – there was plenty of room to boogie when the need arose. The extra space was also handy when attempting to do this after a couple of large cans of lager!
Support came from The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band – a hotshot blues guitarist. His band were all really tight players and the sound they produced was decent, if not that memorable. I didn’t catch all of his set as I was out partaking in the food/beer and buying merchandise (all at prices that are much more reasonable than the UK) but the bits I did see showcased his prowess on guitar. I felt the solos seemed a bit over extended and as a result, I pitied the poor vocalist – he had to stand around like a spare part or play tambourine while the solos meandered on. Not the first singer for a ‘guitarist’ that I’ve seen have to do that……..
With KWS finished, it was on to the main event. Van Halen came roaring out of the traps with ‘Light Up The Sky’ from their (as American’s would call it) sophomore album Van Halen II – this was the first time the band had played the song live since 1980. The band was on top form and Roth’s voice was passable. He still leaves out most of the words (if there are 12 in a line, he’ll probably sing about 5 of them) but the noise was decent. I was definitely going to enjoy myself. My wife – who has a passing interest, at best, in most of my musical choices – was also enjoying herself. Roth is definitely not as mobile as he once was and instead of the acrobatic high kicks, he now has an area of the stage which he can slide on instead. The backing vocals were sublime – always a trademark of the band but they sound slightly different without departed bass player, Michael Anthony - replaced by Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. Next up was ‘Drop Dead Legs’ from the band’s best-selling album ‘1984’. Along with ‘Dirty Movies’ this tour was the first time that the song had been played live by the band. Similarly ‘In A Simple Rhyme’ hadn’t been performed since 1978. Wisely the band only did two songs from the last album, as if accepting that they are now a band trading on their back catalogue. Roth is an engaging front man and made several changes of jacket, one looking like a terrible shell suit top whereas another looked like a ringmaster’s coat, albeit a sparkly one!
Drummer Alex Van Halen was the first of the soloists, with ‘Drumstruck’ which was made more interesting with the use of triggered notes and most importantly it didn’t outstay its welcome. As a drummer myself, I tend to find their solo’s interesting at best but usually I tend to wish that I had used them as an opportunity to hit the bar!
Throughout the gig, there were definitely some bum vocal notes and at times Roth does sound like a distressed seal cub but he more than makes up for it with his between song patter. During ‘Dance The Night Away’ he gave us an insight to all his dance moves and then went on to lambast Jon Bon Jovi, for making a career out of doing the ‘half-Jesus’ (standing with one arm raised) and then he wondered out loud how he could be in dispute with his guitarist, raising laughs from the crowd. Roth carried on then to say that the difference between themselves and Bon Jovi is that “every couple of summers me and Ed will get together and apologise to each other. I love playing with this guy more than anything else in the world”. He then walked over to the guitarist who was sitting on the drum riser and plants a big kiss on his cheek. As Ed laughs and the crowd cheers, Roth says to everyone: “Don’t get too excited – [gesturing to Wolfgang and Alex] I said that to these two as well”. I’ve seen YouTube footage of the skit performed at another gig so it’s definitely planned but watching the interaction between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth you can tell that they can at least tolerate each other at the moment. There were a number of moments were they would share a joke with each other away from the microphone – it was good to see. The set continued apace with yet more superb songs delivered tightly by the band but with Roth squawking away over the top, until we got to another classic DLR moment. The band vacated the stage leaving Roth with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica for company. On taking a seat and treating us to some better slide guitar playing than you’d expect, he settled back into his raconteur’s role and regaled us with a story about attending a music awards show, where he had been nominated for 14 awards for his videos to solo hits ‘Just A Gigolo’ and ‘California Girls’. On taking his seat, the person in front turned round and introduced himself – James Brown. Brown says to Dave “Mr Roth, I’ve seen your videos, you is gonna be sweeping up tonight”. Roth proceeded to miss out on the first 11 awards before he taps JB on the shoulder to ask, “Excuse me Mr. Brown – when you said I was going to be sweeping up, did you mean the floor after the show?” He continued: “In spite of losing out on those awards, ladies and gentlemen - I received my ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ right there – James Brown knew who I was and spoke to me.” After the end of the skit, the band reappeared and it was on to ‘Ice Cream Man’ from their debut album and this indicates the run to the end of the show.
After a brilliantly raucous ‘Unchained’ and the excellent ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’, it was Eddie Van Halen’s turn to take the spotlight. He opened up with the intros to ‘Mean Street’, ‘Little Guitars’ before piecing together his solos from Van Halen II (‘Spanish Fly’) and Diver Down (‘Cathedral’). There then followed an astonishing level of virtuosity. Everyone knows that he pretty much was the template for every guitarist that followed, his impact can never be overstated, he is that influential but I have to say I was blown away with his musicianship. His solo ended in the only way it could – with his signature piece, ‘Eruption’ – which as per its appearance on their eponymous debut – leads straight into their cover of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’.
The usual “Thank you, good night” followed but everybody knew that there was more to come and sure enough, the big hits from the ‘1984’ album ‘Panama’ and the mighty ‘Jump’ made up the encore. During the latter, the Roth, finally wheeled out the acrobatic high kicking jumps he performed in the video some 31 years ago. It was a fitting end to - if not a brilliant gig vocally – a really entertaining evening. I would love the chance to see Van Halen again. If you like dumb hair metal and the chance to forget everything serious for a while – this is the gig to see.
One wonders if they can keep it together and perhaps even get to record another album? Unfortunately, it seems unlikely, as there have been one or two spiky comments in the press already, with Eddie saying he would like to make a new album but “it takes 4 of us to get together and Dave likes dance music now”. However, that quote came out a couple of months ago and the tour survived, so watch this space.
Light Up The Sky
Runnin’ With The Devil
Everybody Wants Some!!
Drop Dead Legs
Feel Your Love Tonight
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
She’s The Woman
Dave The Night Away
Women In Love
Hot For Teacher
In A Simple Rhyme
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love
Eddie’s guitar solo
You Really Got Me