United Center February 24, 2012 - When Van Halen released their first album of new music with David Lee Roth in twenty-eight years, the world at large had their switchblades opened ready to tear them apart, however, when A Different Kind of Truth arrived it wasn't met with disdain but a collective whisper of It's really good
isn't it? Van Halen did the unfeasible; they created an album that stands with their preeminent work. The most common question fans ask of their aging rock heroes is Why can't they make music like they used to? Capturing the same energy and chemistry from decades before is an impossible feat. It's the same reason why hooking up with your high school sweetheart thirty years later is destined to fail. You've both grown and the people you were all those years ago are gone. A Different Kind of Truth is a commendable successor to 1984 and to many die-hard fans, they consider it a perfect addition to the six albums Roth had previously fronted. While few in the mainstream press have ever taken Van Halen seriously, in the realm of hard rock those first six records are deemed as stone-cold classics that hundreds of artists in the decades that followed attempted to copy but no one could ever touch. Those first six records are near perfect and are one of the greatest runs of recordings ever released. Led Zeppelin had arguably six masterpieces in a row and Bruce Springsteen did the same between 1975 and 1987. Whenever an act creates at such a high level of output and quality, any attempt at ever recreating the magic is viewed with a cynical eye. A Different Kind of Truth finds the band mining their early demos for ideas and the final thirteen song record surprisingly embodies the very ethos of Van Halen.
With a new album in tow, the band has hit the road once again and while on paper it has much in common with the 2007-08 tour, this time around the band has coalesced into an unyielding band of brothers ready to slay anyone in their path. The bare bones stage had a pair of microphones, some steps leading up to the drum kit and an A-Grade high definition screen behind them. The music was front and center with little distraction and for 110-minutes, Van Halen arrogantly and marvelously defied all expectations. During the evening's third song, She's The Woman the three Van Halen's (bassist Wolfgang, drummer Alex and guitarist Eddie) congealed into a glorious three-piece molten orchestra. The 2007 tour largely seemed to be a warm-up for this one. Wolfgang has grown into his role offering rock-solid backing vocals and four string cadences, Alex continues his madmen drumming yet never missing a beat and Eddie offering up fearless and foreboding fret exercises worthy of his rock God status.
Sixteen of the songs were performed every night in 2007-08 but there was a new exigency to many of them. Hot For Teacher featured the three musicians as a cohesive whole replicating every last note to total exactness with Eddie's cutting blues riffs at the forefront. At one point during the song, Alex Van Halen was so in tune with his drumming that his sun glasses flew off. Instead of waiting until the song concluded, you could see him probing the floor for them while never missing a single spastic snare hit. I'll Wait is often dismissed by many for the overlaid keyboards, but in concert, you observe the enchantment of Eddie Van Halen's six-string splendor. Most yearn for the fret board flash, but to see his strapping rhythm playing on I'll Wait was extraordinary. His playing was utterly in sync with his brother and son creating a colossal musical wall Roth was able to wail over. While the monster hits Unchained, Dance the Night Away and Panama received the loudest roars from the crowd, it was the four new songs and deep cuts that the band seemed to relish. Mean Street and China Town found the band euphoric with Eddie flashing the crowd with a smile big enough to light the arena. Tattoo is ten times more playful in concert than on record and the back-to-back pairing of Women In Love and Girl Gone Bad found the band digging deep into the past. Neither song had been performed for nearly three decades before this tour yet the performances were faultless with nary a bum note in sight. These album cuts are a welcome addition to the set lists and fans are hoping the band continues to offer up these few chosen rarities every night. If there was any minor complaint from the show, why not offer up more songs from A Different Kind of Truth since it's been so well received? Blood and Fire, Outta Space and Stay Frosty have all the ingredients of vintage Van Halen and would delight the fans of the record and to the casual fans-they would most likely mistake it for classic Van Halen.
It's important to note that Kool and the Gang are opening the entire US tour. While this may appear to be severe miscasting on someone's part, what became apparent almost instantly is that their placement as openers is a splendid gift from Van Halen to their fans. I know this may be impractical to grasp, but Kool and the Gang performed a feisty, fervent and monumental set of ten songs. Their full-bodied arrangements (complimented by eleven members onstage) were reminders they are much more than a pop band but a funk-soul group of musicians capable of conquering stadiums. I saw the band from their first note to their final and they paced themselves wonderfully. Tonight, Midled and Too Hot may not have been well-known to the Van Halen crowd, but you couldn't help but be awed by the sheer awesomeness of their strength as a live entity. Watching them you soon realized that anyone who had made jokes about the band before the show was eating their words. By the time they tore through Hollywood Swingin' and Jungle Boogie those arriving at their seats remained standing not so much out of respect but because the music demanded it. Jungle Boogie will forever be enshrined in multiple generations minds because of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and the tour de force extended jam of the song never wandered. The band consisted of the core instruments (singer, bass, drums, two guitars) along with a percussionist and a five piece horn section. The band was able to employ use of some of the screen behind them and as a result, the crowd was more engaged culminating with Ladies' Night, Get Down On It and the tear-down-the-walls performance of Celebrate. The band delivered one of the most riveting and invigorating opening sets I've seen by any act in recent memory. The crowd's reaction to Celebrate was almost as jubilant as it was to Jump. In short, if you hold tickets to an upcoming Van Halen concert, it's integral you arrive in time to catch Kool and the Gang's entire set as it will rock you just as hard as Eddie Van Halen's guitar.
The only snag to the concert was that portions were plagued with sound problems. I mention this only because several other reviews have pointed out David Lee Roth's antics as a result of the issues. Roth had performed the first three shows of the tour with a head-microphone which proved to be unusable after three songs in Chicago. He went to get a wireless microphone only to have it handed to him without any sound. He surged to the front of the stage, picked up a wired microphone at the tip of the stage and made sure the show proceeded without missing a beat. As someone who had a front row seat to the side of the stage, Roth was upset because there appeared to be virtually no urgency to fix the issue. As a result, Roth's performance was impaired by the old school wired microphone he had to carry with him for the remainder of the evening which often tripped up Eddie in the process. If I were in Roth's shoes, I would have had the same reaction, especially the incapability of the crew to fix the issue for nineteen songs. Roth soldiered on in typical Diamond Dave fashion proving to be the ultimate showman with a rock solid voice. Roth never receives the credit he deserves as many in the audience long to see the voracious comic book hero from their youth enshrined in YouTube videos, but he's a legendary front man for many reasons, but is rarely given the props for his commanding voice and how well it solidifies with Van Halen. In Chicago, despite the handicaps placed in front of him, he largely went above and beyond attempting to give the crowd everything he had.
The 2012 edition of Van Halen is a surprisingly vital and relevant entity. The album and tour are unexpectedly great showcasing a band that is at the top of their game. I can't say there's an insatiable hunger which infused their days of youth, but there is an unbridled desire to prove to everyone wrong. After their performance in Chicago I can say without question they are not washed up and wholly worthy of their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their performance in Chicago, even with a few obstacles in their course, is evidence to their drive to leave an impression that will not soon be forgotten. Not only have Van Halen delivered an old school classic album worthy of comparison to their classics, but they're taking the stage every night ready to leave a pint of blood on it. They've left the theatrics home and instead are delivering a thunderous take on garage rock highlighted by Eddie Van Halen' piercing guitar strengths which are at the peak of their powers. While Roth is the showman and up front and center, Eddie's guitar playing was mesmerizing not in a nostalgic manner but in an eye-opening realization that he's every bit as good as he's ever been. He's an innovator and his note-for-note reproductions of Eruption and Cathedral during his solo are a testament to not just his importance to the electric guitar but to all incarnations of Van Halen; a band that has often been imitated but whose sound has never been replicated and never will be.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter