It had been too long since concert fans had spent a hot summer night with Van Halen under the stars at Blossom Music Center. Actually, it had been 20 years — going all the way back to the Balance tour in July of 1995, during the controversial “Van Hagar” era. (This writer enjoys both of the main eras of the group and even the Cherone period — but that’s a rarity, as you’ll find, if you ask somebody which one they prefer.) You can see a slideshow of photos from the show here
No matter who is at the helm (and that’s been “Diamond” David Lee Roth back on the job since 2007), a Van Halen concert always feels a bit like a family reunion of sorts and as you look around the crowd, you’ll see VH concert shirts from many different eras and at scattered points, at least a few VH-related political statements — such as the “F Sammy” T-shirt that we spotted early in the night.
Last night's Blossom date was an overdue raincheck for a planned Cleveland show that was part of a series of tour dates that got scrubbed at the last minute in 2012 (a Quicken Loans Arena show scheduled for July 28 of that year got pulled barely a month before it happened, along with 31 other shows on the planned third U.S. leg of their tour at that time). So it’s appropriate that when they did finally make their awaited area appearance, it was a bit of a sneak attack.
The levels of the pre-show music didn’t even spike as drummer Alex Van Halen made his first appearance behind the kit, holding his sticks high in the air in a victorious pose and acknowledging the crowd. The familiar tone of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar floated across the stage next and the rest of the band strolled onto the stage and kicked things into a heavy gear for their 23 song set, opening with a deep cut, “Light Up The Sky,” from 1979’s Van Halen II
. Fans were excited and understandably so — the song hasn’t been played live in 35 years prior to this current run of shows, since the band last played it on tour supporting the album in 1980.
Prior to starting the song, Eddie Van Halen and Roth linked arms and did a quick carousel spin, a subtle move that if nothing else, put to rest the ongoing rumors of tension between the pair. And in fact, throughout the night, there would be plenty of nods, smiles and eye contact shared by the two. They kept it about the music — and there would be plenty of highlights in that department to enjoy. It was only the second song when bassist Wolfgang Van Halen stood front and center on his uncle’s drum riser to thump out the familiar bass lines of “Runnin’ With The Devil,” from the band’s now-classic 1978 debut.
Credit Wolfgang —- who didn’t even make his entrance on the planet until 1991 — for the dead on the money setlist that was a perfect transport back, covering all of Van Halen’s best days with Roth. It is Wolfgang who has been in charge of putting the setlist together in recent years and for the current tour, he has surrounded the expected classics with a healthy helping of rarities, including a pair of songs that had never been played live prior to this current run.
How is it, for example, that the band never played “Drop Dead Legs” on the tour to support 1984
? No matter — it made for a heavy slab of paradise, hearing the assembled Van Halen family — Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang — putting down a thick and funky groove on the album favorite. And “Dirty Movies” gave Roth a chance to riff on the title and wonder, “Does anybody actually go to the movies? Or do they just go to the internet? They just use their cellphones,” and as he quipped, “I just use my wrist watch.” A Van Halen concert of course is a chance to collect plenty of those memorable lines from Diamond Dave.
Early in the night, wearing a sparkly black jacket, Roth told a lengthy story where at one point, he shared with the audience, “I already knew at that young age that I was not like the other kids in Sunday school.” (At this point, we figured that out quite a while ago now.) It seems that according to Roth, at some point, his parents had threatened to sell him back to the Indians. At that young age, if you can believe it, it seems that Roth was being difficult. He shared his childhood dreams from those formative years when he was growing up and told the crowd with a grin, “Careful what you tell your kids — that shit is for life.”
Decades later, Roth is still traveling in his own neverland and vocally he sounded on target for the early part of the night, although as the set progressed, he definitely faded a lot and occasionally rearranged a few vocal lines here and there on the fly. Thankfully, that was not the case with Eddie Van Halen — the guitar legend was all smiles throughout the night, exchanging high fives with members of the audience and throwing out plenty of picks while ripping solo after solo, to the point that his actual guitar solo (long a hallowed moment that comes late in the band’s set) almost felt unnecessary. But of course, for the many assembled who might have learned their own guitar skills by studying every recorded note of Eddie’s work, it was a moment that was of course, very necessary.
Solos on “Drop Dead Legs” and the classic “Feel Your Love Tonight,” were just a couple instances that demonstrated that the guitar legend’s skills remain thankfully fully intact. He’s in a good place and it’s clear that he’s having the time of his life, getting the chance to make music with Wolfgang on a Van Halen concert stage. Combine that with the unmistakable sound of Alex Van Halen behind the drum kit and it was a real thrill that never got old, watching the three Van Halens musically lock in time and time again throughout the night.
There’s been a lot that has been written about the vocal struggles of David Lee Roth on this tour (and the television performances that led into it) and many will point out that he was never a great live vocalist to begin with. He has always been a great performer, however, and that’s a quality that has not diminished with time. While he seems to lack the stamina to deliver a consistent vocal performance throughout the entire show at this point (something which was not an issue on the touring in 2007 and 2008 where he arguably delivered some of the finest performances of his career), he continues to entertain on a level that delivers the goods for those in attendance, something that was pretty clear when watching audience members visually act out certain classic Roth lyrical sections, line by line.
A recent comment made to this writer by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry comes to mind, in which he discussed that it didn’t matter so much whether you played a track and got it perfect — what mattered was that you played the track — and people got the chance to hear it.
And that fits the current situation of Van Halen touring with David Lee Roth — while he might not be delivering performances that are note perfect through 100 percent of the set, there are large numbers of fans who either missed Van Halen in the Roth era or were too young, that are getting the chance to see at least a piece of the magic they missed that they might have otherwise only heard on the albums and the reaction would suggest that they're getting their money's worth. It’s anybody’s guess what the always unpredictable VH machine will do next once this current touring wraps up, but for two hours on this particular night in Ohio, Van Halen did a good job of “lighting up the sky” and sending fans home with some fresh concert memories.