Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Mighty Memorable Time With The Mighty Van Halen - Tinley Park, IL 7/24/15

I remember the first time I heard Van Halen. It was a weekday morning, and I was headed outside to take a walk on the train tracks. There was a neighbor, 3 looong doors down the street, who had stereo speakers the size of refrigerators. Every Summer, he and his roommates would have a huge blow-out party, and our relatively hidden neighborhood (just one long block, basically, that's it) would be pleasantly overrun by pretty women. But, I digress. It was early Spring, and, I was making my way to the train tracks for a walk near the river. I crossed over the patio, made my way down the steps, and, as my feet touched the grass in the backyard, there was a huge eruption of drums, followed by guitar and bass, coming from the party house down the way. "Whoa! Who is that?" I ran down the lengthy backyard to the tracks, making my way as quick as I could to get behind that house for a better, even louder, listen. What I was hearing was the coolest guitar solo I'd ever heard at that point, a lot of really fast playing and cool whammy bar dive bombs. Just as I got positioned on the tracks directly behind the party house, about 57 seconds into the solo, my life, especially as a budding guitarist just starting to investigate the instrument, changed forever. That's when I was first introduced to what would become known as two-handed tapping. "What is THAT???", I wondered. I wasn't the only one wondering. Those 103 seconds I heard on the railroad tracks that day were a game changer. The bar had clearly been raised and everyone knew it. A few days later, I was listening to the radio. I heard a song called "Runnin' With Devil", followed by that same solo, followed by a scorching cover of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me". The group's name was Van Halen, and the solo was called "Eruption". I went to the record store, picked up Van Halen's eponymously titled debut album, and, about 36 minutes later, I had a new favorite band.

Van Halen consisted of Edward Van Halen on guitars and backing vocals, his brother Alex Van Halen on drums, David Lee Roth on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, and Michael Anthony on bass and backing vocals. The L.A. Hard Rock quartet had honed their act playing backyard parties, wet t-shirt contests, and, eventually, well-known clubs on the Sunset Strip like the Whisky A Go Go and Gazzarri's. Not only did the band feature the world's greatest guitarist, Eddie's brother Alex was a monster on drums as well. Michael Anthony and Eddie Van Halen's unique backing vocals made them sort of like The Beach Boys of Heavy Metal. On top of all that, flamboyant David Lee Roth, with his wild mane of bleached blonde locks, onstage acrobatics and martial arts antics, exuded an overt sexuality, presenting Van Halen as the quintessential party hearty Hard Rock band. Between the musicianship, the witty and salacious lyrics, their stage presentations, and their reputation as the ultimate party band, Van Halen was the band to see live. Between the years 1978 and 1984, Van Halen were, indeed, the ultimate Hard Rock band, and, the most successful, selling millions upon millions of albums. However, on April 1st, 1985, David Lee Roth quit Van Halen. The band carried on with former Montrose lead singer Sammy Hagar from 1985 - 1996, releasing 4 platinum albums. However, to many longtime fans, "Van Hagar" just wasn't what they considered to truly be Van Halen. After a falling out between the Van Halen brothers and Sammy Hagar, there was a brief reunion of sorts with David Lee Roth which produced 2 songs and high hopes amongst the band's fans. Alas, the reunion did not take hold, and former Extreme lead singer Gary Cherone joined the band for an album and tour. The album didn't sell like a Van Halen record should. Once again, Van Halen was without a lead singer. In 2004, Sammy Hagar rejoined the band for a reunion tour. On the last night of the tour, Edward Van Halen busted 2 guitars onstage, saying, "This is it. It's over. Never again." He was pointing at Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony.

In 2007, David Lee Roth rejoined Van Halen. However, Michael Anthony was out, replaced by Edward Van Halen's son 16 year old Wolfgang Van Halen on bass. This incarnation of the band has been together ever since, releasing Van Halen's 12th studio album ("A Different Kind Of Truth") in February of 2012. They toured in the United States in 2007, 2008, and 2012, did shows in Japan, and performed in Australia in 2013. A live album ("Tokyo Dome Live in Concert ") was released earlier this year. Currently, the band is on a 41 date tour of the States, and, while the band has faced a fair amount of criticism largely focusing on David Lee Roth's current vocal skills, the reviews have all been overwhelmingly positive.

On Friday night, July 24th, 2015, my nephew (and "Daytime Dungeon" co-host) Master Gregory went to the Van Halen show at the Hollywood Casino Ampitheatre in Tinley Park, IL. The opening act was
the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. It was an incredible night of guitar playing, that's for sure, and Kenny lit his Stratocaster fretboard up, especially during the show's highlight Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)". Of course, the vast majority of the crowd was there to see the "3/4 original, 1/4 inevitable" Van Halen. At about 8:45, the lights went down, as Alex Van Halen stepped behind his monstrous kit. The show was off and running with the Van Halen II rocker "Light Up The Sky". Much is being made of the setlist for this tour, as it consists not just of hits, but also rarely performed cuts, as well as material that has never been performed by the band onstage until this tour. 24 year old Wolfgang Van Halen is the linchpin of this incarnation of the band and is to be thanked for creating the setlist. Other seldom heard onstage songs included "In A Simple Ryhme", "Dirty Movies", "Feel Your Love Tonight", and "Drop Dead Legs". The band is a well oiled machine. Eddie Van Halen is still "the King of 10 fingers and 6 strings", as DLR has referred to him so many times in the past, playing better than he has in about 17 years. Alex Van Halen may well be playing the best he ever has in his entire life. Wolfgang Van Halen has been the unfair target of a lot of misinformed criticism aimed at him by people who miss Michael Anthony, and, apparently, have no musical talent of their own. "He can't sing those background vocals like Michael Anthony", they say. I've got news for those folks. In 2015, Wolfgang Van Halen's backing vocals are more than just acceptable. They're damn good, and, about as close as you can get to the Michael Anthony backing vocals of old. So much so, in fact, if you closed your eyes, you may well have thought it was him singing them. As for those who falsely believe that Wolfgang doesn't play as well as his predecessor, in a way, they're "right." Wolfgang far and away is the vastly superior bassist, locking in with Uncle Alex as needed, and playing lines that, without a doubt, far outshine anything in Michael Anthony's unremarkable skill set, as witnessed on songs like "Romeo Delight", China Town", and "Hot For Teacher". Plus, the father, son, and uncle dynamic is priceless.

Ah, but, what about David Lee Roth? The naysayers and/or "Van Hagar" fans are quick to criticize the man, saying he's "lost it." "He doesn't leap into the air anymore. He's a joke. His voice is shot." Etc., etc. In all fairness, the man is 60 years old. He doesn't leap 10 feet into the air off of the drum riser and land doing splits anymore. The man is still quite limber, and is in remarkable shape. He's had some back surgery, and jumping around like that isn't exactly a good idea. Of course, Sammy Hagar never did any of those moves, ever, because he was incapable of doing so. Yes, Dave's voice is not what it once was. No, he doesn't do the lengthy screams that he once did so effortlessly. I don't think that anyone does many things as well at age 60 as they did at age 30. However, David Lee Roth is still one hell of a frontman and entertainer, and there's no one like him. David Lee Roth has always been a valuable contributor to Van Halen, bringing in outside influences that other bands lumped in with VH couldn't spell let alone infuse into their respective sounds. David Lee Roth is, and has always been, like a Rock And Roll Ernest Hemingway, a world traveller, a poet, an adventurer, as influenced by Motown as he was David Bowie. When Dave's in Van Halen, the band is funkier, yet, heavier, much heavier. The band's 2012 "A Different Kind Of Truth" is easily their heaviest album since 1981's "Fair Warning". Oddly, Dave was somewhat less talkative at this show, something that Eddie himself also noticed. At one point during the show, the opening to "Hot For Teacher", Eddie could clearly be seen asking Dave if he was alright, because there was no big storytelling or wisecracking during the beginning of the song. Dave's spotlight in the set, as always, was "Ice Cream Man". Dave told the crowd that, when he dies, he wants his ashes spread over the Eighties. With humility, and his usual great sense of humor, Dave relented that, no, he isn't quite the same guy he was during VH's 1984 peak, and he regaled us with the tale of the $60,000 chili dog.

Van Halen, especially with David Lee Roth at the helm, has always been in the business of making smiles. Look at any classic photo of Eddie Van Halen. One of the things that set him apart from his peers is that he was always smiling. And, of course, the highlight of highlights at any Van Halen show is Edward's solo. The King didn't disappoint, and the whole place was smiling along with him.

Yes, the band is firing on all cylinders, playing better, and more tightly, than they have in years, and, while time may have tempered some of David Lee Roth's antics, Van Halen is alive and well in 2015, and heavier too. This was my 16th time seeing VH live in concert, and my nephew's 3rd. Our seats weren't the greatest. In fact, they were the "worst" seats we've ever had for a Van Halen show. However, nothing could change the fact that we went to see the World's Greatest American Hard Rock Band, the one with the guitarist who forever changed the world of Rock guitar. The band was great, and it was a Summer night that we'll never forget. When we got home, I asked Master Gregory, "Good times?" His response was, "Of course! Never anything but!" Ah, yes. It's all about smiles, and memories that will last a lifetime. If you're one of those people sitting on the fence, and can't decide whether or not to see Van Halen in concert this Summer/Fall, quit goofing off, get real, get with it, and get yourself to see The (Still) Mighty Van Halen!

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