Early into Van Halen’s two hour set, frontman David Lee Roth told the crowd at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday. “I feel like this will be a good show.” Then he asked, “Is this show going to be a winner or a 9-car pileup? That’s Valen Halen, baby!” he explained. This came after Roth forgot the words to “China Town” and signaled his bandmates, all with the Van Halen surname, to get to the chorus.
Van Halen’s show was exactly what one should expect from a Van Halen show: incredible musicianship from guitarist Eddie Van Halen, ridiculousness from Roth and amazing people watching while your parents’ friends tried to prove they still had rhythm during opener Kool & the Gang’s set.
Kool & the Gang was, at least in my opinion, terrible. Not that they played poorly, but their singles, all ubiquitous at weddings and in casinos, haven’t held up as well as their funky peers’ music like James Brown, George Clinton and Prince. “Celebration” and “Jungle Boogie” should have been left to die in the 1970s. More puzzling was that no one from Van Halen acknowledged their set or explained why they were on this tour.
But when Van Halen came out, it was on one of the smallest stages I’ve seen for an arena rock show, cut more than in half by a giant screen that showed the concert live in black and white. The only color image I remember on the screen was a Best Buy logo, instructing us as to where we could pick up VH’s latest album, A Different Kind of Truth.
Roth sometimes mumbled through songs, but when the band played “Hot for Teacher,” Van Halen was running on all cylinders. Eddie’s guitar riffs were unforgettable and Alex Van Halen’s drum beat, one of the most memorable in rock and roll, was on point and Roth was captivating and nailed his vocal performance.
Roth was quite funny and animated throughout the night, and worked as a frontman who kept the show moving and the crowd entertained and knew when to get out of the way for a great Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. He was immensely quotable, telling the crowd (to someone up front in particular), “I could be your father. This isn’t my first time in your town, I’ll tell you that.” Another time, he talked about how the “one type of martial arts” he does is “Adidas Kung Fu.”
My favorite story in my favorite recent music book is from Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. It has a story where an MTV contest winner wins a weekend partying with Van Halen and the band gets the winner drunk, high and laid (but not necessarily in that order), only to find that he can’t actually drink without getting violently ill and his life is in jeopardy after a day of partying with Van Halen. Those days are long gone and now Eddie’s son Wolfgang has now replaced Michael Anthony on bass. He was pretty good.
The setlist was entirely made up of songs from Roth’s years with the band, so nothing Sammy Hagar sang lead on (or, heaven forbid, Gary Cherone). Van Halen had enough hits (and new songs) in their catalog to do that, but could you imagine Van Hagar not playing “Panama,” “Jump” or “Hot for Teacher?”
For Roth being the comedic force of VH for much of the night, he was also responsible for the most touching, when he showed a video of his animals and narrated a story about his involvement with them while strumming an acoustic guitar. It was a nice bit of “Story Time with David Lee Roth” (as my friend Travis Hay of Guerrilla Candy put it) before leading into a version of “Ice Cream Man” that Roth made famous. It was also one of the few moments of the night where you didn’t see Roth with his almost-perpetual shit-eating grin.
Van Halen was a band I loved growing up, especially with the wonder that is Eddie Van Halen’s guitar riffs, so I was glad to finally get the chance to see them live. It was flawed, with Roth forgetting some of his words, and he can’t kick as high as he used to, but when they needed to be on, like they were for “Hot for Teacher,” it was perfect. Even better, it was rock and roll.
2. Runnin’ with the Devil
3. She’s the Woman
4. The Full Bug
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
7. Somebody Get Me a Doctor
8. China Town
9. Hear About It Later
10. Oh Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison cover)
11. Alex Van Halen drum solo
12. You Really Got Me (The Kinks cover)
13. The Trouble With Never
14. Dance the Night Away
15. I’ll Wait
16. Hot for Teacher
17. Women in Love
18. Outta Love Again
19. Beautiful Girls
20. story time with David Lee Roth
21. Ice Cream Man (John Brim cover)
23. Eddie Van Halen guitar solo
24. Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.