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Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisVan Halen's ongoing membership saga is certainly worthy of a TV mini-series, if not a full-fledged reality show. Though all's stayed steady since 2007 (wow, a whole year!), the 2000s have been filled with several unpredictable turns that couldn't even be created for a soap opera script. Just for the record, the "reunion" line-up enlists original front man David Lee Roth, alongside guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen and new bassist Wolfgang Van Halen (the seventeen-year-old son of Eddie), while the group's second singer Sammy Hagar and original bassist Michael Anthony currently tour as The Other Half. (We'll skip third singer Gary Cherone all together since he was merely a footnote in the confusing chronicle).
While it's always hard to place bets on the exact personnel, it didn't take a professional bookie to guess most shows with Diamond Dave at the helm would sell out, which is exactly what happened last fall. With that track record in mind, the band's spring 08 continuation seems to be a victory lap of sorts, even if there was only one packed Chicagoland return (compared to three gigs at full capacity last time through). And those who showed up for the second round got pretty much the same (though perhaps a bit tighter) as last year, which was basically a set list loaded with hits and deep cuts from 1978-1984, minus any new material whatsoever.
Obviously this wasn't quite like catching Van Halen back in the day, not just because of Anthony's absence, but because the band's no longer the urgent, trendsetting rock n' roll rebels. At this stage of the game, it's three middle aged men and one offspring coasting on classic rock nostalgia, which certainly has a place in the concert market, even if there's no current musical statement being made. At least each entertainer was on their performance game from the opening charges of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," packed with the leader's ferocious screams, Eddie's searing solos, Alex's deafening drums and even Wolfgang's strutting bass lines.
Across the better half of two hours, the auto-pilot cruised at full altitude, not necessarily taking any risks, but bringing back generally satisfying memories of when Van Halen truly mattered. With over two dozen songs in the set, there were ample examples of its influence across rock history, from the raucous "Runnin' With the Devil" to the muscular melodies of "Dance the Night Away" and the supercharged "I'll Wait" (hampered by piped in keyboards- oh so cheesy). The ringleading Roth (who was dressed like a circus ringmaster at times) helped put the band's gritty stamp on Roy Orbison's "(Oh) Pretty Woman," pleased album appreciators with "Romeo Delight" and "Ice Cream Man," while rounding the bases with the commercial climaxes "Hot For Teacher" and "Panama."
Even with the overwhelming demand for an encore (the inevitable "Jump"), there was an element of the original magic missing (and we're not just talking a reprisal of those tacky, pre-taped keyboards instead of the real deal). Unlike Van Halen's early years when the players had something to prove, their motives appeared far less pure, viewed by many as nothing more than a quick cash grab (especially in light of the singer's floundering solo career). Had the band actually released a studio CD or had something fresh to say, it wouldn't be as easy to make assumptions, but the core four didn't even hint a trip to the studio was in the works. While there's no knocking any of their abilities to reproduce a series of rollicking retro sounds across a packed two hours, Van Halen's true test will come when writing new material, that is of course, as long as everyone's still talking by tomorrow.
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