Van Halen still big dumb fun


July 21, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

The symbolic moment during Monday's show at the United Center by the reunited Van Halen came five songs into the set, during that most self-indulgent and worthless holdover from the hair-metal '80s, the bass solo.

Back in the day, Michael Anthony would famously pause midway through his four-string showcase to chug the better part of a bottle of Jack Daniel's. At the traditional spot on Monday, the 50-year-old Chicago native flashed and then shot-gunned one of those minibottles that they give out on airplanes.

Yee-ha! How rock 'n' roll!

The quartet's still considerable fan base remains divided on this issue, but I have always sided with those who believe that Van Halen shrank in stature when it traded the ridiculous but self-deprecating David Lee Roth for the ridiculous but annoying red rocker Sammy Hagar. But during the first of its two-night stand in Chicago, the group seemed even smaller -- meeker, older and a lot less gonzo -- than Van Hagar Mach I.












This was not a surprise. Bandleader Eddie Van Halen, 49, has had a tough go of it in recent years, enduring a hip replacement, a battle with tongue cancer and the end of his 20-year marriage. And even the diehards were cynical about the 56-year-old Hagar returning to the fold to peddle a greatest-hits set with a couple of new songs when he said he quit in the first place because fans were being ripped off by the last greatest-hits set, which happened to feature a couple of new songs featuring his predecessor.

The real surprise at the United Center was that despite the whiff of greed behind this reunion -- main floor tickets cost $107.50 -- Hagar's buffoonish beach-bum stage persona and the musicians' rapid approach toward eligibility for membership in AARP, Van Halen was really pretty darn good.

Yes, the new songs -- "It's About Time," "Learning to See" and "Up for Breakfast" -- were turgid stinkers. But they were more than offset by the relatively fiery renditions of favorites such as "Jump," "Runaround," "Top of the World" and "Why Can't This Be Love," which remain timeless in their merger of metallic crunch and old-fashioned melody.

Sure, the four solo slots disrupted the show's pacing -- four songs, bass solo; three songs, drum solo, etc. -- with Hagar's acoustic renditions of the overblown power ballads "Eagles Fly" and "Deeper Kind of Love" marking an even lower low than the bass solo or Alex's simianlike pounding of his massive triple-bass drum set.

But Eddie's 15-minute turn in the spotlight was a joy, even if his arsenal of six-string shenanigans -- the rapid-fire hammer-ons, the power drill to the pickups and the great, moody swells of sound created by playing with his volume knob -- were all old hat. The guy remains one of the most inventive guitarists in rock, and after all he's been through, he deserved to bask in the glory of the fans who chanted "Ed-die, Ed-die!" and "Go, Eddie, go!"

For all its outdated arena-rock posing, Van Halen remains a band of the people, with its millionaire members maintaining a true connection to their blue-collar fans. Eddie seemed overjoyed to be running and jumping nonstop across the massive stage -- no sign of that troublesome hip problem -- and he and his mates continually high-fived, hugged and signed autographs for the faithful, all without missing a beat or a note.

Even Hagar's ritual of donning the hats offered by the fans -- a construction helmet, a fire helmet, a Cubs cap, a Sox cap -- and wrapping himself in the giant banners that they tossed onstage was endearing in its way.

In the end, it's easier to accept a grayer, gentler Van Halen because unlike so many other multiplatinum acts continuing to milk their nostalgic audiences, this band never makes the mistake of thinking that it's better than its following. And it remains big, dumb fun -- even if it is a lot smaller than it was when there was a real reason to care.