Amid the ocean of black T-shirts at the Allstate Arena on Tuesday night, one
stood out as particularly appropriate. Modeled after those ubiquitous "Got
Milk?" ads, it asked, "Van Halen?"
Well, that was certainly the name that
sold out two Chicago arenas this week. (The group will perform again at the
United Center on Thursday.) But on a deeper, more philosophical level, one
could be forgiven for asking, "Van Halen -- or was it, really?"
For one thing, after years of bitter feuding between singer David Lee
Roth and guitar hero Eddie Van Halen, you had to wonder whether the spark
behind this reunion really was the reconciliation of "best friends" (Roth's
words) eager to celebrate their musical accomplishments, or the purely
monetary motivation of some fifty-something rockers who've finally accepted
that they're worth much more together than they are apart.
For another thing, a surprising proportion of the fan base for the L.A.
metal band, which has sold 75 million albums since its 1978 debut, actually
prefers the group's second incarnation, led by singer Sammy Hagar. I am not
among them; give me Roth and his carnival barker schtick any day, because at
least he knows he's a goofball.
Yet even if you agreed that the only Van Halen that was really Van Halen
was the one with Diamond Dave at the helm, there was a final question
hanging over Tuesday's show: Were we really supposed to welcome Eddie's
16-year-old son Wolfgang as a serious replacement for founding bassist
Michael Anthony? (The Chicago native was left out in the cold thanks as much
to the power of nepotism as the sin of chumming around with Hagar.)
For his part, Wolfie wasn't bad, though he was nowhere near the virtuoso
on four strings that Pop was on six. Mostly he just thumped away, looking
kind of geeky, awkward and self-conscious, especially when he took a turn
rounding the catwalk jutting into the crowd.
A sometimes hoarse-sounding Roth sounded and looked a lot better back in
the day. But what he lacked in athletic stage moves or a higher register --
a problem most notable during "Hot for Teacher," "Jamie's Cryin'" and the
occasional attempt to scat along with Eddie's guitar -- he made up for with
sheer exuberance and old-school show-biz charisma (though we could have done
without his showcase spot on "Ice Cream Man").
As in the past, Alex Van Halen was best when he was just riding a
propulsive groove, as during the relatively streamlined pop-metal hits "Runnin'
with the Devil" and "Dance the Night Away." Sorry, but surrounding yourself
with four drum kits' worth of instruments doesn't automatically mean you
deserve a solo, or have the skills to make one interesting.
Finally, there was Eddie, as inventive a guitarist and as musical a
soloist as rock has ever produced. For all of the trauma of divorce, rehab
and hip surgery, his hammer-on's and fretboard fireworks haven't lost a
beat. In the end, that was probably the most important consideration for the
majority of fans -- young metalheads born long after "Jump" as well as now
respectable forty-somethings eager to relive their head-banging youth.
In other words, Eddie was still Eddie.
So regardless of whether or not this Van Halen was the "real" Van Halen,
it was more than close enough to please the paying customers.