concert review: van halen. “…i heard you missed us, we’re back!”

The view from our seats.

Van Halen with Kool & The Gang
Friday, 24 February 2012
United Center, Chicago

Full disclosure: I’m one of those rare breeds that has room in my heart for both the Dave and Sammy incarnations of Van Halen. To me, they’re two completely different bands that speak more to what Eddie was trying to do musically than compete against each other’s legacy. With Dave, Van Halen was a raw force of nature. With Sammy, the band stretched out, musically, and found a new groove. They’re both great, but in different ways.

But on this night—in a packed arena of 21,000+ in Chicago—it was all about the vintage 1970s and 80s Van Halen. The Van Halen that fueled testosterone for two, maybe three generations of teen-age boys in the pre-CD era of rock music.

This was my fourth Van Halen show, first with David Lee Roth. This was my chance to finally see the Van Halen I grew up hearing on the radio. The Van Halen I heard blaring from eight-track players in Monte Carlos. The Van Halen I heard from my bedroom window as a child when they toured through my hometown and played at the local high school a few blocks away. And on this night, some 35 years after I first heard You Really Got Me by Van Halen, I finally saw them live.

In a word, wow. Just. Wow.

Despite the obvious microphone issues and monitor issues, the show was top notch. Dave seemed to struggle with his voice most of the night, but not to worry when you’re backed by a trio of Van Halens. Any vocal imperfections from DLR were easily hidden under the sharp, crisp guitar work from Eddie. Unlike the last time I saw them in 2004 with Sammy Hagar, Eddie was focused and at his best all night. It’s damned near scary how he can still play songs from the late 70s that sound as fresh and intense as the day it was released. Eddie is back.

While I miss Mikey, I can’t take anything away from Wolfgang. He and Alex were tight with the rhythm and that bass guitar was THUMPING all night. He was especially bringing it on Runnin’ With The Devil. And I never much saw Alex, but he sounded awesome; especially on Everybody Wants Some!! From the opening tribal rhythms, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the building who thought of John Cusack in Better Off Dead.

For my money, hearing Dave and Eddie together on Unchained was the high point of the show. It’s my all-time favorite Van Halen song and the band nailed it. One of the most surprising moments of the night was hearing I’ll Wait, an underrated gem from 1984. Same goes for Women In Love, from Van Halen II. I honestly never thought I’d get the chance to hear these songs outside of my iPod (do people still have iPods?).

Before the show’s closer—Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love and Jump—Eddie held court by himself one more time to give the crowd what it wanted: his guitar solo. Now, I’ve never been a guy too keen on guitar solos in concerts. Usually, I find them boring. But Eddie Van Halen changes everything. For six minutes, Eddie weaved in and out of Eruption and Little Guitars while adding a few new licks. Most impressively, he seemed to play with more passion than I’d seen in the past. At 56 years old, Eddie is still the reigning guitar hero.

Looking around at the sellout crowd at United Center, this Van Halen show was something of a communal experience for men of a certain age. With an average age hovering closer to 40 than 30, it was clear we were all reliving our youth, but in a much more relaxed manner. Oh sure, there were the fist pumps and air guitars, but we’re not 17 anymore. We know how to pace ourselves (and probably have to so we don’t get worn out). It was really one of the most fun bonding experiences I’ve ever had with complete strangers.

And even though I’m a guy who loved Van Halen live with Hagar at the helm, there was a much different chemistry with DLR back in the saddle. With Dave, it was one speed, all night long. And that was, quite simply, a moment to behold.

Dave may not be able to hit the high notes and pull off the leg kicks like he used to, but Van Halen proves their music and performance is more than just a sum of its parts. When you put them all together, they create a palpable vibe with their music. This was, without a doubt, the best Van Halen show I’ve ever seen.

Set list
You Really Got Me
Runnin’ With The Devil
Romeo Delight
Tattoo
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
China Town
Mean Street
Oh, Pretty Woman
(Drum Solo)
Unchained
The Trouble with Never
Dance The Night Away
I’ll Wait
Hot For Teacher
Women In Love
Girl Gone Bad
Beautiful Girls
Ice Cream Man
Panama
(Guitar Solo)
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
Jump

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