June 20, 2012
American Airlines Center
Dallas, TX USA
Review by David DiPietro
Photos by Barry Bond
Walking back to the car following Van Halen's performance at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, I was reminded of an analogy made by VH fan Henry Rollins, the former lead singer of Black Flag and the Rollins Band on his recent decision to stop performing music. To paraphrase, he said, "If you had a peach tree that faithfully gave you fresh fruit for years and years, how would you feel if one day it began giving you canned peaches instead?" This is the conundrum I was faced with, seeing Van Halen in concert for the first time since the Diver Down tour in 1982.
For there was an ancient time, 1979-1981 to be exact, when a concert headlined by the likes of Van Halen was a celebration and revelry in everything excess. You could expect a battle-ready sound system more fit for an aircraft carrier than a concert hall. You'd witness a lighting tress that rivaled the spectacle of Queen. And then there was a stage set that over-the-topped a band like KISS in its sheer outlandishness. Oh yeah, let's not forget the music itself. There was the spectacle of Eddie Van Halen's glorious riffs and scorching six-string dive bombs drenched in distortion. And lest we forget, there was the preposterous aural swagger of David Lee Roth. His high octane, acerbic show punctuated with miraculous 20-foot leaps into the air from the drum riser, was a marvel to behold. During that time period, there were few rock bands if any, who could touch Van Halen as a live act. The word 'dynamic' didn't even do them justice.
Three years later, vocalist / carnival barker / cock rocker supreme Roth would leave the roost in pursuit of an agenda that left many Van Halen fans scratching their heads. Over the next decade, or what many VH fans refer to as 'Van Halen Lite,' the band's stage presence would be drastically scaled back to reflect a more 'adult' approach to rock, not only in musical direction, but in stage, lighting and balls-out intensity as well. It was this latter-day, watered-down version of Van Halen that appeared at the AAC June 20 (sans bassist Michael Anthony who was replaced by Eddie's son Wolfie).
Touring behind A Different Kind of Truth, one of the biggest hype-jobs of an album this decade, Roth and the two Van Halen brothers, Eddie and drummer Alex, looked and sounded to be only going through the motions on what has seemingly been an exhausting, 50-date and counting, trek across America. It showed as this once mighty band was merely a shell of its former self.
While the majority of the 19,000 or so people who crammed the American Airlines Center on Wednesday (many shelling out as much as $160.00 apiece for tickets) might not agree, the intensity coming from the stage was clearly lacking. It was reminiscent of what one might expect had they shown up at Van Halen's rehearsal space for some casual, impromptu jam session. The situation wasn't helped any when the AC inside the arena was turned off right before VH hit the stage per Roth's instructions.
Walking out with relatively little fanfare than in years past, drummer Alex rattled around the skins a few times before limping the band into a semi-erect version of "Unchained." Normally one of the band's best tunes, this version sounded weak and tired. A piped-in train intro followed and "Runnin' with the Devil" snarled a bit better, with the house sound now dialed-in at a volume that I would describe as five, or half-way. From my vantage point next to the stage, the sound was okay to middling. I was curious to know what the nosebleed seats were hearing, but not enough to venture forth and find out.
As a Los Angeles Times reviewer mentioned a few weeks ago, the stage set for the 2012 Tour has been scaled back to the point that Van Halen is using approximately half of their normal PA and perhaps a third of the lighting used on the Fair Warning tour in 1981. What has replaced much of this is, admittedly, the biggest LED screen I have ever laid eyes on. That said, unless this show was something as inherently lame as the American Idol Tour, a giant LED screen does not a concert experience make.
"She's the Woman," a new track, followed and was one of only four tunes played from the band's latest album. Judging by the tepid crowd response to this tune, "Tattoo," and "The Trouble with Never," it was a wise move by the band not to bog down the show with too many throwaway songs from A Different Kind of Truth. Puzzled looks on many faces in the crowd during the new tunes showed that either many of the band's fans have not yet heard the new recording or they simply didn't care to hear any of it. My vote is the latter.
Despite a few rough patches during the evening, Roth's voice seemed to be in fair to fine form, though the same cannot be said about his stage prowess. Gone are the trademark leaps and sensational high kicks, not to mention the numerous bottles of Jack Daniel's that he would go through (real or not) each night. In short, the guy seemed tired. Spending most of his time on what looked to be an 8x10 foot rubber mat at center stage, his antics were confined to twirling the mic stand and a couple of routines that involved some minor spinning and sliding in place. Only when he pointed out a blonde in the front row who tickled his fancy, and begin to hit on her mid-tune in front of an arena full of screaming fans, did some of the old David Lee Roth emerge.
When I reviewed Jane's Addiction last month, I said the band had taken a small auditorium the size of McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus and transformed it into a stadium-sized experience with their power and sheer size of the production. Last night, Van Halen seemed to do just the opposite. They took a stadium-sized audience and toned the proceedings down to that of a rehearsal. Whether that's end of the tour exhaustion, or just a way to keep the band's stamina from waning is open to debate, but underplaying to their audience is not what one would ever expect of Van Halen.
The show did have some high points. They were just very few and far between. "Everybody Wants Some" struck a decent balance between the power of the past and the finesse of the present. "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" had its fair share of oomph, though Alex in particular seemed to have a lighter touch on the drums than his flailing ways of yore. Eddie's trademark leaps, slides and bounds across the stage were non-existent. This was by far the most 'stationary' Van Halen performance I could have ever imagined.
"China Town," one of the better tracks off the new album, translated very well in this live setting. Alex's double bass drumming laid down a different kind of groove. The tune segued nicely into a relatively rarely played tune, "Hear About it Later," from the Fair Warning album. The band then had the AAC crowd singing along in unison with their once infamous, now tame version of Roy Orbison's "(Oh) Pretty Woman."
Alex Van Halen's obligatory drum solo was thankfully kept to perfunctory minimum. Though these supposed show stopping moments are not a particular concert favorite of mine, there are those drummers who execute them with power and panache, such as Carl Palmer and Tommy Aldridge. Then there are others, like Sabbath's Bill Ward and Peter Criss of KISS, who should never bother. Tonight Alex, while a fine drummer on record and song, fell into the latter category. His solo went on for less than 10 minutes, which has always been about his norm.
After getting the expected Kink's cover out of the way ("You Really Got Me") and a final throwaway off the new album ("The Trouble with Never"), the band hit a high point in both playing and passion with a pristine version of "Dance the Night Away." The band's rendering of it on this night was startlingly fresh. Eddie's 21 year-old son Wolfgang, demonstrated with his instrument on this tune he was not necessarily content to merely march in the fret steps of his predecessor note-wise, though the tone of his bass sounded to be a bit on the thin side. I would like to someday hear him on a Gibson Thunderbird bass, which has a thicker, denser tone. It's more appropriate when replicating the Van Halen sound.
It was unclear if the synth parts on "I'll Wait" were on tape, or if a roadie was off stage playing the song. At no time during the evening's performance did Eddie revert to playing synthesizer, and that was a shame. "And the Cradle Will Rock," elicited some of the loudest crowd support of the evening, as did the night's two biggest set list surprises, "Women in Love," and "Beautiful Girls."
Another surprise came unexplainably from Roth. Improvising on an acoustic guitar, the singer reminisced about living on a farm during his childhood while grainy black and white images of a dog herding sheep appeared on the LED screen. The singer's narrative trip down Memory Lane seemed to be sincere as well as unscripted. It was, for me, a touching moment of Roth's self-examination and I could almost feel the tears welling in his eyes. This was the power of rock and roll, taken in an all together unique direction. Those witnessing the moment will remember it more with affection than with derision.
"Ice Cream Man" itself, was hit and miss, though most in attendance seemed to enjoy it. Again, I would have preferred a more cranked up sound, or even a deep cut like "Atomic Punk" or "On Fire," but alas it was not to be. Instead, the audience got the predictable "Panama," which signaled the end was near. We also finally got to witness a crackling good guitar solo by Eddie, who fused parts of "Eruption" with excerpts from "Cathedral" and "Sunday Afternoon in the Park." Again, I am not normally a fan of guitar solos, but this segment of the show was riveting. The giant LED Screen utilized some mesmerizingly colorful effects during the solo that I wished we had seen more of during the show. Instead, what we got was the screen just being an enlarged version of what was happening onstage.
"Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" closed out the set proper, though it was underwhelming in this case as the band's energy was spent by this point. Seriously, Wolfgang seemed to be the only member on stage truly enjoying the show. Eddie, Alex and David Lee didn't even bother disguising how age had caught up with them. They didn't even take the trouble of setting foot offstage and making the audience work for the predictable encore. Instead, during the waning notes of "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," Roth simply yelled, "Do you all want an encore?!" While I have seen this parlor trick played by local bands performing in bars and nightclubs, this was the first time to actually see it done in a packed arena by one of the most revered hard rock bands of my generation.
"Jump," the band's biggest, yet stupidest hit, had the sold-out AAC crowd dancing and gyrating in unison. The majority probably felt grateful they were seeing this legendary band in concert, albeit maybe the last. This limp rendition of the 1984 tune reminded me of why at the time I found the angry, raw power of bands like Black Flag and the Sex Pistols to be increasingly more appealing than this toothless song. However, 28 years later, Black Flag and the Sex Pistols are ancient history, while the 'dinosaurs' of rock still proudly roam the Earth. For how long, especially in this case, is anyone's guess.