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Van Halen All Smiles at Pacific

You’d have to go back to the days of the Maharishi to find a bunch of rockers more blissed out than Van Halen was during its four-man love fest Tuesday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre.

There was Sammy Hagar, calling Eddie Van Halen “my best friend in the world.” There was Eddie, saying the feeling was mutual. Smoochin’ Sam went out of his way to hail the bass and drums team of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen as “the baddest rhythm section in rock ‘n’ roll today, (expletive) anybody if they don’t believe that.”

And there were the four of them, hugging and laughing and mussing each other’s hair about as often as NBA players trade high fives. After a while, one began to wonder whether Leo Buscaglia had taken over as the band’s manager.

This display of bonhomie on the first of Van Halen’s two nights at the Pacific was refreshing after the attitudes we’ve seen lately from other top-of-the-line hard rockers. You get scowls from Metallica and snits from Axl Rose, while the running subtext in Jane’s Addiction is “we don’t talk to each other, and anyway we’re gonna break up.” Rock band as fellowship--what a concept.

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The only thing not right with the Van Halen world, apparently, is the existence of rap music.

“We ain’t no rap band,” Hagar proclaimed. “That is some sad (stuff).”

Since there was no reason on Earth to be talking about rap, which certainly isn’t cutting into Van Halen’s market share, Hagar presumably was engaging in metalheaded (maybe one should say meatheaded) McCarthyism: Find something different, declare it alien, and heap scorn on it, so we can all feel good about being in our own superior club together. What’s next, a mandatory anti-rap loyalty oath for prospective Van Halen ticket-buyers?

Hagar’s other self-serving fantasy for the night was benign: Los Angeles gives Van Halen the jitters.

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“This is the town that I fear the worst,” he said early in the show. By the end, Hagar was able to proclaim that, despite the presence of all those hard-to-impress industry people (he enumerated record company and radio staffers, critics and fellow musicians as the ones who make the band nervous when it plays Southern California), Van Halen had managed to relax and have fun. Again, it was the old metal ploy of inventing an obstacle, a challenge to surmount, a mission to accomplish against the odds.

Given those two instances of Hagar baloney, one started to get a tad suspicious about whether all the warm fuzziness between band members might be manufactured as well. But the exuberance of Hagar and Eddie Van Halen seemed unstaged. With a leathery voice that sounded strained and shouty in his weaker moments, Hagar is just a journeyman singer, but he does know how to work a stage. As for Van Halen, the visible pleasure he takes in performing is as striking as his dexterity and massive sound on guitar. Instead of appearing to be engaged in titanic labor, the usual metal guitar-hero pose, Van Halen hopped and kicked and grinned his way through the show, acting like a schoolboy on a Friday afternoon.

Van Halen’s blatant outward display--"look, we’re having fun"--wasn’t as satisfying as watching a band like NRBQ turn a concert stage into a sandbox with playfulness and humor grounded not in gestures but in the music itself. Still, it was easy to be swept along with a band that was having a good time.

Van Halen made enough boisterous music to back up the mood of happy self-congratulation surrounding the show. At peak moments, the four members rocked freely and powerfully. They dispensed with the band’s smoother, more punctilious pop side and emphasized a loud, roughhouse, heavy-rock approach. Only three of the 16 songs were ballads--one of them a solo acoustic spot by Hagar. The other two, “When It’s Love” and “Why Can’t This Be Love,” ditched the synthesizer arrangements of the album versions. Instead, Eddie Van Halen prodded them in a nastier direction with gritty guitar rhythms.

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The chief obstacle to a free-flowing concert wasn’t any L.A. jitters but the band’s own insistence on padding its two-hour show with long bass, drum and guitar solos--a Van Halen tradition since its first tour 13 years ago.

After a slow start with “Poundcake,” “Judgement Day” and “Spanked,” three mediocre songs from the band’s current album “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” things began to take shape with “Runaround.” A few songs later, Van Halen exploded, turning “One Way to Rock” into a bracing double-guitar blitz. Then, nothing. Or next to nothing, as Anthony and Alex Van Halen proceeded to waste the next 11 minutes on pointless samurai bassist and choo-choo drummer solos. While not the best, as Hagar pegged them, they are a fine rock rhythm section--when they’re playing real music in a band context instead of diddling around by themselves.

Eddie Van Halen’s 14-minute solo spot wasn’t much better as it fell into repetition of flashy moves without a sustaining structure or progression. Van Halen showed that he could make a guitar sound like a bowed bass or violin as he raced through classical figures with his two-hands-tapping-the-strings technique. He didn’t show that he could play a song without accompaniment. A concise, coherent, intensely played short instrumental piece would have been far more intriguing than Van Halen’s formless blow.

With solos out of the way, Van Halen did its best work at the end. The Hagar oldie “I Can’t Drive 55" was a galloping, careening highlight. Next came “Dream Another Dream,” which stood out with its dark, urgent tone and its alternately angry and yearning lyrics about the collapse of the economic security underlying the American Dream. Hagar nailed it with an emotive, embattled vocal.

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After a typically pointless exit and return for a pre-planned encore, Van Halen aptly punctuated “Dream Another Dream” with the buoyant defiance of “Jump.” Hagar’s rendition of the David Lee Roth-era signature tune didn’t sound the least bit secondhand (although using a canned synthesizer track wasn’t such a hot idea. Can’t Van Halen afford to pay a keyboard-playing sideman?). The concluding stretch ended with the spirited, optimistic “Top of the World,” showing that Van Halen can express thoughts, moods and feelings along the way to having fun.

By cutting the lard out of the show and adding more of the emotionally stormy material it has begun to attempt on its new album (“Pleasure Dome,” “In ‘N’ Out,”), Van Halen might have made the entire show as expressive as the last half an hour, without sacrificing its prevailing mood of good cheer.

Practically inert in two previous Orange County visits as a support act within the past year, Seattle’s Alice in Chains showed some spark toward the end of its 40-minute opening set.

Singer Layne Staley once more acted churlishly, swearing at the audience for not getting up and grooving to early-set songs that were glacial in pace and mood. Staley himself was no groover, favoring a fetal crouch above anything remotely expressing vibrancy.

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But “Man in the Box” and “Bleed the Freak” hung the band’s terminal gloom on catchy melodic hooks and picked up the tempo to the point where Alice in Chains no longer sounded like the Cult on ‘ludes. Instead, it sounded like the Cult with a mild hangover.


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