Van Halen: 1 March 2012 – Live at Madison Square Garden, New York

Van Halen

If you want to be annoyed by David Lee Roth, there’s plenty to work with. The mincing, preening, gurning original and most recent frontman for Van Halen is one of rock’s most mercurial figures, a court jester in a fallen kingdom. But for all the hits of the Sammy Hagar era – a period Van Halen circa 2012 would rather pretend never happened, thank you – there is no one more perfectly suited to serve as a foil to Eddie Van Halen’s legendary guitar pyrotechnics than Diamond Dave.

At a sold out Madison Square Garden on Thursday, March 1 – the band’s second such show on their tour in support of A Different Kind of Truth – Van Halen blasted through many of the touchpoints of their golden era, weaving in seamlessly four songs from the new album, their first with Roth back in the fold.

The tension between Roth and the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and drummer Alex, has become a long, cautionary folktale, an awkward and terrible period stretching over two decades that’s only worth bringing up again for the umpteenth time because of its total absence on the stage at Madison Square Garden. Eddie always smiled on stage anyway, but he’s positively beaming these days. It can’t hurt that the band’s new album – its first since 1998’s grim Van Halen III, with vocals by Extreme’s Gary Cherone – has been heralded as a genuine return to form. And, sure, it’s hard to imagine anyone not grinning like a loon playing a second sold out show at “the world’s most famous arena” in the early stages of what promises to be a very profitable tour. But there’s also genuine warmth on the stage, so much so that it even manages to break through old stone face Alex.

Another awkward truth which can’t be overlooked is that for all the esprit de corps in the Van Halen camp these days, they’re still trolling through the past without the mystical mullet of Michael Anthony, the band’s original bass guitarist whose vocal harmonies were an integral part of their signature sound for all those years. As with almost anything involving the history of Van Halen, the relationship was fraught with acrimony, and Anthony is nowhere to be seen or heard. Filling in on bass and backing vocals for the past few years is Eddie’s son Wolfgang, an official member of the band. Wolfgang clearly has the chops to perform with Van Halen, and he appeared comfortable in front of nearly 20,000 fans in New York City. Weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Wolfgang has been an official member of Van Halen since his mid-teens, a time when most fledgling rock musicians are fumbling in the garage through a haze of low grade weed and acne medication. To Wolfgang’s credit, he’s not only in his element on stage, but does nothing to deserve any criticism from Anthony purists longing for a “true” reunion.

Being a support act at Madison Square Garden is no picnic, as the vast arena looks empty until it’s close to full. Kool & the Gang, performing without singer James “J.T.” Taylor, might seem a curious choice as a tour opener, but aside from a few ardent rock fans who sit, arms crossed, in protest, they do their job by getting the crowd in a celebratory mood.

Then came Van Halen, with a performance that mostly sounded like it might have back in 1978 or 1984. But let’s get the bad news out of the way first. After a night where proficiency matched energy, they closed with “Jump”, which topped the charts in 1984. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal choice for a finale, and after mostly killing all night it was a total mess, with none of the musicians able to secure a toehold with the song’s signature keyboards, played here as a backing track. It was a disappointing end to a terrific show, and all the confetti and grand prix flag waving couldn’t obscure it.

There were also three solo moments for the band’s old timers. It was inevitable, of course, but also unnecessary. Midway through the set, the rest of Van Halen left the stage so Alex could prove he’s still got it. There is no greater primal thrill in rock & roll than his tribal drums in “Hot For Teacher”, and as he demonstrated later, he’s still more than capable of pulling its complexities off on stage.

Eddie’s solo, incorporating elements of “Eruption” and “Cathedral”, was also undeniably skilled, and probably even more appreciated by the crowd. But at the risk of committing heresy, it would have been perfectly fine being passed over, especially with his incendiary work on songs like “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Everybody Wants Some” still hanging in the air.

Diamond Dave’s solo bit was predictably more puzzling, an acoustic run through of “Ice Cream Man” with pauses to narrate home movies about his dogs playing on the massive HD movie screen at the back of the stage.

But in the end, these are minor gripes, and what the night was really about was those fantastic songs and the performance. Van Halen was always about blending style and substance, and even as they’re older now than they were then, they’ve still got it. Eddie still shreds, Alex still destroys and Dave…Dave is still Dave. His voice is terrific and he’s in unbelievable shape, not only wearing his ass-hugging fancy pants with his version of dignity and grace, but also capably, acrobatically performing every strut, spin, split and kick we all remember from the “Jump” video.

The crowd ate it up with a spoon. Women with overly frosted hair and the dudes evenly split between old rockers, guys who want to be low-level mob enforcers and guys who consider Jason Statham a fashion and lifestyle template. Everybody wants some, indeed. And even 40 years after they first got together in Pasadena, California, Van Halen can still give it to them.

The tour winds across the U.S. and Canada through the end of June.

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