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
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.
VAN HALEN AT THE UNITED CENTER
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
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,
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
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.