Review: Opposites Attract — Van Halen Reunited with David Lee Roth

By Bradley Bambarger <2007>

The ostentatious hugs may be as stage-managed as a G8 summit, but at least the smiles appear genuine on the original Van Halen’s reunion tour — finally, after a decade’s on-again, off-again soap opera.

Guitar whiz Eddie Van Halen and singer/showbiz-ham David Lee Roth are famous opposites, with no love lost since they first split in the mid-’80s. But Roth is beaming at being back on big stages, fronting a legendary band. And though an ear-to-ear grin is Eddie’s default expression whenever playing his instrument, the fresh-from-rehab guitarist seems truly ecstatic to be roaring through the songs that inspired generations of acolytes.

And Van Halen fans — at least those at Monday’s show at Philly’s Wachovia Center — are smiling at seeing the band’s original incarnation again, and in shockingly good form, besides. Except that it’s not quite the band that went from ruling the Sunset Strip in the mid-’70s to topping the charts in 1984. Eddie kicked out bassist Michael Anthony for siding with Sammy Hagar, the singer who never really replaced Roth.

For all Eddie’s six-string pyromania, Anthony’s bass lines always seemed like something a 16-year-old could play. On this tour, a 16-year-old does play them — Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. The husky teen may have looked like a kid who won a “play with Van Halen” contest, but he was tutored well by his father; moreover, Wolfgang had Anthony’s vital high harmonies down. Roth got it right when he described the band as “three-quarters original, one-quarter inevitable.”

In Van Halen’s party-band heyday, Roth was half long-haired, scissor-kicking rock god, half ironic strip-club emcee. Few front men stood to lose more with age, and he turns 54 this month. Although he has less hair, Roth is hardly less fit, retaining his martial-arts skills with a mic stand and a few Chippendales dance moves. He was never much of a singer, but his growls and squeals remain intact, mostly.

New to Roth’s menu of well-oiled stage patter is a kind of nostalgic charm. Strumming an acoustic guitar for his intro to “Ice Cream Man,” he put on a one-man That ’70s Show, reminiscing about smoke circles and young girls in the suburbs (memories that many in the fortysomething male crowd could surely share). The band then kicked in behind him, exploding the cover of bluesman John Brim’s tune into carnivalesque metal, just like in the ’70s.

Back in the day, Eddie’s post-Cream/Hendrix virtuosity made old guitar heroes almost seem obsolete. It was soon apparent that his supersonic flash could only express one emotion — excitement. But his playing is still an aural thrill ride. Eddie, his hands like the sinewy tools of a blacksmith, wrests a tone from his instrument that is always warm and real. But with a dizzying battery of tricks — string- and neck-bending, twisted harmonics, hammer-ons/pull-offs, rubbing strings against pickups, effects with whammy bar, volume knobs and toggle switch — he made his guitar sound like a cross between an orchestra and a jet engine.

The drum solo by Eddie’s brother, Alex, was a test of endurance, for him and the audience. The night-capping “Jump” should’ve been stripped down, ditching the dated synths on a backing track. Mostly, though, the set was an impressive race through the band’s 1978–84 songbook, from the reputation-stoking Kinks cover “You Really Got Me” and gleeful MTV hit “Hot for Teacher” to hard-grinding lesser-knowns “Little Dreamer” and “Everybody Wants Some.” With the band having nothing new to say (alas), the show was a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

(Originally published in 2007 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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