Which Van Halen is it? A pretty good one

October 17, 2007


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.