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Cock of the Walk: Van Halen at John Paul Jones

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It's been 22 years since I last saw Van Halen.

As a young teenager I caught their "1984" tour stop at the Richmond Coliseum, one of the first concerts I ever saw. It blew me away, not only with ear-bleeding volume but also with the sheer spectacle of it all.

Now, thousands of concerts later, it's time to revisit the band. I had watched them sink through several consecutive circles of hell, first with red rocker Sammy Hagar, then with some dude who sang for Extreme, until they had become a festering sap-rock sore, a cruel parody of their former hard-rocking selves.

When the band announced its reunion last year with one-of-a-kind singer/showman David Lee Roth, real VH fans rejoiced. The reunion wasn't perfect, of course. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen replaced original bassist Michael Anthony with his young son, Wolfgang, or "Wolfie," proving cronyism doesn't just exist in the executive branch.

Finally, after two rescheduled shows at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, the rake-in-the-money reunion stopped in Virginia Friday, May 2.

The last time I saw them, the air before the concert was electric, with a white smoke haze hanging over a sea of shirtless, Jeff Spicoli-types with puka shell necklaces. This time the atmosphere was different, the crowd disappointingly tame for the entirety of the show. It was mostly guys over 40, many like me hoping to relive a nostalgic moment from their youth. Some of them even brought their kids. But the seats were not fully sold-out, probably because many got fed up with postponements. Tickets originally priced at $150 were going for as low as $20 outside.

The show kicked off with their classic cover of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The stage was S-shaped with a catwalk that hooked into the crowd, which Roth occasionally used to strut his leather pants around a lassoed group of concertgoers. There was a movie-sized screen behind the stage that caught all the cock rock action.

It was clear from the get-go that Wolfie, who looks like a balloon version of his mother Valerie Bertinelli, was a good enough replacement on bass; the playing and back-up vocals sounded the same, if a little passive. (During "Unchained" when young Wolfie stepped to the mic and said, "C'mon Dave, gimme a break," it sounded more like Donny Osmond. Yes, it's a nitpicky complaint, but the whisky-grit of Michael Anthony was missed, not to mention his old bass solo).

Otherwise, the band sounded in good form, a little sloppy and fast on some numbers, but rocking nonetheless. Roth can no longer hit the high notes or jump off the ground, but he was still his loveable old self, a non-stop talker and rocker whose screams sound like a graying tiger in a cage, roaring more out of habit than statement.

But one couldn't argue with a set list that focused on late '70s and early '80s material, including cherished nuggets such as "Atomic Punks," "Mean Street," "Jamie's Crying," "So This Is Love?" and "And the Cradle Will Rock."

A few songs into the show, Roth launched into a bizarre personal story that sounded like a classic coke rant from the '80s: something about a former girlfriend who had moved to nearby Staunton and found Roth "the perfect" pet dog, a pit terrier with only three legs who looked like Petey from "The Little Rascals." The story rambled on, with the dog digging up a ring that Roth said resembled a Civil War item, and the woman using it to propose to Roth, who answered in typical fashion with a punch line: "How does a three-legged dog dig in the mud?" The band then launched into an unusual medley of jams that included The Who's "Magic Bus" and Cream's "Crossroads," featuring a note-for-note solo by Eddie Van Halen in an ode to his favorite guitarist, Eric Clapton.

Indeed, Eddie Van Halen played well tonight and looked tanned and healthy -- like he had just gotten back from some Caribbean rehab. He sported blonde hair and a red-and-white checkered shirt, playing most of the night on a cream-colored, custom guitar before switching to his classic, black-and-yellow striped Kramer late in the show. The band vocals sounded particularly strong on the karaoke numbers, stuff like "Dance the Night Away" and their classic cover of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."

The only band member that appeared to have lost a step was drummer Alex Van Halen, who once played like an eight-armed sushi chef on meth, but now cheats a little. The drop-off is understandable, considering the speed and power he was known for, but the guy now relies on all kinds of digital bells and whistles to improve his drum solo, adding phaser-like effects to the hi-hat, and some schmaltzy, pre-recorded horn sounds. He still kept pace most of the show, sitting behind his monstrous set looking like kung fu master David Carradine after a three-day Jagermeister bender.

The show was well-paced, including an acoustic number near the end with Roth telling old stoner stories from 1972, when he used to sit at his friend Kenny's house in a room of black light posters and throw darts at the wall. "Pot had something called seeds then," he said, before segueing nicely into the bluesy "Ice Cream Man."

They closed out strong with several fan favorites, including Eddie Van Halen's blistering trademark guitar solo, "Eruption," which relied heavily on his guitar's volume knob, while mixing in the "Cathedral" instrumental. The band then stormed out with its classic A-minor threat: "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love."

I chose to skip the usual encore of "Jump," wanting to see if I was right about something: Yes, Van Halen still rocks. And yes, you can still hear them two blocks away.



Setlist:

01. You Really Got Me (from "Van Halen," 1978)

02. I'm the One (from "Van Halen," 1978)

03. Runnin' With the Devil (from "Van Halen," 1978)

04. Romeo Delight (from "Women and Children First," 1980)

05. Somebody Get Me a Doctor (from "Van Halen II," 1979)

(Magic Bus --- Crossroads jam)

06. Beautiful Girls (from "Van Halen II," 1979)

07. Dance the Night Away (from "Van Halen II," 1979)

08. Atomic Punk (from "Van Halen," 1978)

09. Everybody Wants Some (from "Women and Children First," 1980)

10. So This Is Love? (from "Fair Warning," 1981)

11. Mean Street (from "Fair Warning," 1981)

12. Pretty Woman (from "Diver Down," 1982)

13. Drum Solo

14. Unchained (from "Fair Warning," 1981)

15. I'll Wait (from "1984," 1984)

16. And the Cradle Will Rock (from "Women and Children First," 1980)

17. Hot for Teacher (from "1984," 1984)

18. Little Dreamer (from "Van Halen," 1978)

19. Little Guitars (from "Diver Down," 1982)

20. Jamie's Cryin' (from "Van Halen," 1978)

21. Ice Cream Man (from "Van Halen," 1978)

22. Panama (from "1984," 1984)

23. Guitar Solo (incl. "Women in Love" intro, "Cathedral", "Eruption")

24. Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love (from "Van Halen," 1978)



Encore



25. 1984 (from 1984, 1984)

26. Jump (from 1984, 1984)

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