Nobody in Van Halen said anything onstage Friday night about what’s next for the famously volatile hard-rock band, which this weekend is wrapping up 3 ½ years of intermittent activity with a pair of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
We know what’s already happened. In 2012 Van Halen released “A Different Kind of Truth,” the band’s first album with its original frontman, David Lee Roth, since Roth’s acrimonious departure in 1985. (The singer, whose slot was filled first by Sammy Hagar, then by Gary Cherone, came back initially in 2007 for a blockbuster reunion tour.)
Reaction to the new music was strong, as was the new music itself. Yet it didn’t take long for the wheels to start falling off: Only three months into playing shows behind “A Different Kind of Truth,” Van Halen postponed, then canceled, dozens of 2012 tour dates. More recently, guitarist Eddie Van Halen has had some less-than-charitable words for the inveterate ham who helped form the band – along with Van Halen’s brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony – in Pasadena in 1974.
“Roth’s perception of himself is different than who he is in reality,” the guitarist told Billboard over the summer. “We’re not in our 20s anymore. We’re in our 60s. Act like you’re 60.”
None of this raised hopes for Van Halen’s latest run of shows, tied to a throwaway live album and set to conclude Sunday with an encore at the Bowl. I walked into the venue Friday night half-expecting a stumble to the finish line, with maybe a public brawl if we were lucky.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that Van Halen sounded pretty great: speedy and precise but with a walloping bottom end. What’s more, the band’s mood seemed downright civil.
“Ed and I agree to apologize every few summers and come out and share the good news,” Roth said at one point, delighting an audience clearly packed with hardcore fans who’d been with the group since its early days. Then he said the best moments in his life have taken place onstage with this band. (You took it for granted that he meant the version with Anthony as opposed to Eddie Van Halen’s 24-year-old son Wolfgang, who took over as bassist in 2006.)
Highlights? A crunching “Runnin’ with the Devil.” A thunderous “Unchained.” An appealingly sleazy “Ice Cream Man.” “Beautiful Girls” boogied; “Feel Your Love Tonight” had crisp vocal harmonies. And “Hot for Teacher” was absurdly, almost comically fast, probably 20% faster than it is on record.
Conscious of the hometown crowd, Roth peppered his usual banter with rambling anecdotes about playing the now-defunct Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip and about how he was one of the only white kids at Pasadena’s John Muir High School. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
As at AC/DC’s concert this week at Dodger Stadium, the production was relatively low-tech compared with the complex multimedia spectacles you now get from younger acts. But Van Halen didn’t need that newfangled flash. It had a frontman willing to put on a new hat or scarf between virtually every song and a mad-genius guitarist whose 10-minute solo near the end of the show was a marvel of hard-won technique.
I’m not saying Van Halen is here to stay. If nothing else, the fact that these guys played only one song from “A Different Kind of Truth” – it was “She’s the Woman,” performed more carelessly than anything else Friday – suggests the last few years haven’t exactly filled them with warm memories.
But who knows? Perhaps in their 60s they’ve gotten good at forgetting.