The thousands of Van Halen fans assembled at White River Amphitheater on Sunday evening to catch the opening night of the hard-rock band’s first North American tour since 2012 had plenty of questions for each other as they waited in line for overpriced beers. What songs from the group’s late Seventies/early Eighties peak would make the set list? Would David Lee Roth’s voice sound as shaky as it did when the reunited band played on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel Live!? The most important concern though was simply: How long is this reunion going to last?
For one tattooed couple from Canada, the less than generous comments that Eddie Van Halen made recently in Billboard about his band’s limber-limbed frontman led them to wonder if this seemingly friendly détente between the two musicians would hold for the whole run of summer dates, one night or even the entire set. Not that a further tear in the already threadbare fabric of their favorite band really concerned these two B.C. twentysomethings; they seemed more excited about the idea they could potentially be at the last ever Van Halen concert.
If there were any friction still being sparked up between the guitarist and vocalist, it wasn’t apparent for any part of the group’s two-hour set. From the moment the two men and their bandmates, Alex and Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie’s brother and son, respectively), ambled on stage with zero fanfare, it was all business. Well, all business for the three instrumentalists at least. The Van Halen brothers moved much slower than they did during their heyday but still brought ample amounts of energy and power, even as they were shaking off the rust in the early going.
Roth, on the other hand, was as hammy and corny as ever. With that beaming smile fixed to his face throughout and a section of slick wooden flooring under his feet, he slipped and slid about, did some quick pirouettes and contorted his body into all kinds of angular shapes. Gone were the reverse karate kicks, replaced with play-acting that his mic stand was, at various times, a baseball bat, a golf club and a weightlifting bar. He also continued his reign as the king of stage banter with some truly funny asides and head-scratching attempts at comedy. While the band tore through “Dirty Movies,” from 1981’s Fair Warning, he marveled that so many Van Halen songs are about sex and girls. “That just how it’s gone down,” he said, grabbing his crotch. “We’ve been doing this for 40 years and it’s not gone down once.”
As for his voice, well, Roth is never going to be the nightingale he once was, but he hasn’t seemed to come to terms with that. On otherwise fine performances of classics like “Hot for Teacher” and Kinks cover “You Really Got Me,” he brayed when he could have crooned. And throughout he seemed to be working on his own internal clock, which seemed to throw Alex Van Halen off a bit during the show’s opening one-two punch of “Light Up the Sky” and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”
When Roth eased up on the throttle and locked in with the rest of the band, Van Halen sounded positively unbeatable. “Everybody Wants Some!!” (from 1980’s Women and Children First) was a tribal monster that sent the singer into a shimmying, shaking frenzy as he flew a little off book with his vocals. Their loose run through the 2012 single “She’s the Woman” was held together by Eddie’s delirious wah-wah heavy solo. Both Fair Warning‘s “Unchained” and Van Halen II‘s “Beautiful Girls” were hurricanes of snapping rhythm and bloodthirsty guitar noise. And of course Eddie gave himself a run in the spotlight with an extended “Eruption” that swung from finger-tapping frenzy to a delicate passage that was almost new age in its timbre.
No mud was slung, no hard feelings were on display, and for good chunks of this opening night set, all felt very right in the world of Van Halen. In fact, Roth seemed to make a point of being gracious to his longtime bandmate, skipping over the first couple of lines of “You Really Got Me” to instead say “Great solo, Ed.” It was a tiny gesture amid the lights and volume of an arena-rock show, but hopefully one that will help keep their relationship intact for a few more months, at least.
“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”
“Dance the Night Away”
“Women in Love”
“Hot for Teacher”
“In a Simple Rhyme”
“Ice Cream Man”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
“Eruption” > “You Really Got Me”