There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical walking into last night’s Van Halen concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. In no particular order: founding bassist Michael Anthony has been kicked to the curb in favor of Eddie Van Halen’s sixteen-year-old son Wolfgang, David Lee Roth’s vocals have sounded more than a bit shaky in recent years and Ed has done little in these past few years except go to rehab and write scores for porn flicks. Yet when the curtain dropped and the band burst into a note-perfect “You Really Got Me” it became clear this was somehow going to work.
It was hard to know where to look first when the show began: a shockingly well-preserved Ed ripping into his guitar, Dave frantically waving a red flag and grinning like a killer clown or Wolfgang, standing confidently on the side of the stage, playing a set consisting entirely of songs written at least seven years before he was born. Ultimately Dave — who reveled in every moment onstage — won out. His voice didn–t sound like it was still 1984, but his vocals were significantly stronger than we’d expected. His signature karate kicks weren’t as high as they used to be and he flubbed his share of lyrics (you’d think he’d at least remember “Pretty Woman”), but his boundless enthusiasm made up for everything.
From 1985 until 2004 Van Halen fans had to wade through endless Sammy Hagar (or, worse, Gary Cherone) songs to get to a handful of Roth-era classics — and even when they came, some other guy was singing them. It was barely tolerable, but it was the only Van Halen we had. On this tour, the events from 1985 to the present have been erased. What remains are what Dave has called “favorites that you’ve been hearing tearing out of the back of a pick-up at the Burger King drive-thru for how many summertimes.” The only problem was that the arena sound system sounded like it was composed of 10,000 pick-up trucks taken from the Burger King drive-thru. Maybe it was just where we were sitting (directly on the side of the stage) but the sound managed to be both ludicrously loud and muffled. Roth’s vocals were often buried. Did Eddie replace the sound guy with his six-year-old nephew Timmy Van Halen?
Shitty sound aside, it’s hard to complain about a show featuring Roth and Eddie Van Halen doing two hours of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher” and lesser-known gems like “Atomic Punk” and “I’m the One.” Sure, firing Anthony was a shitty move that made the whole evening feel less momentous. But if putting his son onstage is the only way to get Eddie back out there playing these songs, so be it. This is the only Van Halen being offered and it’s better than anything they’ve given us since the first Reagan administration.
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