By Jane Stevenson
If you were wondering who’s holding down Van Halen’s current incarnation on the road, which pulled into the Air Canada Centre (ACC) on Saturday night – on St. Patrick’s Day no less – the first hint was the opening song, Unchained.
Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, his brother and drummer Alex, and Eddie’s son and bassist Wolfgang first appeared on the massive, minimalist stage – dominated by a wall of speakers and an enormous video screen – before flashy singer David Lee Roth followed.
The veteran hard rock outfit is touring with Diamond Dave in support of a new album, A Different Kind of Truth, their first studio effort in 14 years, and their first with Roth in 28 years since the album (and the year) 1984.
And even if the band kept the new songs to a minimum, playing only four – the new standouts were Tattoo and The Trouble With Never – in their loud and fast-paced hour-and-50-minute set, the Van Halen magic was clearly back after a good but not great trek with Roth in 2007 that also visited the ACC.
At that time the foursome hadn’t had the time to really gel given it was Wolfang’s first tour with his dad and uncle, Roth hadn’t been in the fold in 22 years and Eddie wasn’t looking so good and that tour later postponed some dates while he was rumored to be in rehab.
By comparison Van Halen now comes across like a happy, well-oiled machine, led by the plane engine-like guitar sound and virtuoso playing of a much healthier-looking Eddie.
Highlights were numerous: Runnin’ With The Devil, Everybody Wants Some – which the band stopped mid-song just to lap up the sound of 14,500 people roaring – Dance The Night Away, I’ll Wait, Hot For Teacher, Beautiful Girls, Panama, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, Jump, and their covers of Oh, Pretty Woman and You Really Got Me.
It all became apparent just content how Eddie, now 57 years old, was and is during his astonishing guitar solo late in the show as he sat alone on the stage and smiled like a little kid while he played.
Wolfgang – who turned 21 on March 16 – is also a much more confident bass player, interacting nicely with both his dad and uncle throughout the night, while Alex (in shades the entire show) made a massive racket behind his kit and Diamond Dave was up to his usual flamboyant stage antics.
Sure, the high kicks and high vocal register aren’t what they were back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, but Roth – decked out in a shiny silver shirt, vest, and sparkly pants and occasionally a newsboy cap – knew how to work the room, whether it was sitting on Alex’s drum kit, or dancing in a soft shoe fashion on a wooden stage that enabled him to slide around in between Eddie and Wolfgang.
“How we doing so far, Canada?” asked Diamond Dave to huge cheers.
And when he changed into a blue satin jacket with red trim during Hot For Teacher you hoped the wardrobe changes would just keep coming. They did.
We also got some amusing stage banter as Roth took the stage solo with an acoustic guitar leading up to his cover of Ice Cream Man while showing footage of his herding dogs on the large screen behind him.
“Cattle dogs are a lot more aggressive,” explained Roth. “They’re a lot like Canadian hockey fans.”
In an odd but intriguing pairing, funk pioneers Kool and The Gang opened for Van Halen.
Apparently, Roth saw their set at Glastonbury last year and thought they’d be a perfect opening act.
Tragically, the 10-member Kool and the Gang – including bassist Robert “Kool” Bell – didn’t have much of an audience intitially as they kicked off their 45-minute set with Fresh.
But the crowd grew in size and spirit as the group continued along with such funk classics as Too Hot, Jungle Boogie, Ladies Night, Get Down On It, and the mother of all wedding songs, Celebration, the latter finally inspiring the audience to sing along.
Runnin’ With the Devil
She’s The Woman
The Full Bug
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
Hear About It Later
Oh, Pretty Woman
You Really Got Me
The Trouble with Never
Dance The Night Away
Hot For Teacher
Women In Love
Girl Gone Bad
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
This story appeared in today’s Toronto Sun (March 18, 2012).