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Van Halen maintains status as rock legends at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center

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If you’ve ever been to a Van Halen concert, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. A workmanlike effort from no matter who is behind the microphone, extended mind-blowing solos, some jokes combined with juvenile humor for good measure, and a two-hour barrage of classic rock staples from one of rock and roll’s best all-around discographies.
 
Let’s face it, whether you love or hate Van Halen, chances are everyone can name at least one song from each of their six album’s made with David Lee Roth from 1978 to 1984. For 34 years and multiple lead singer (and now bass player) changes, Van Halen has been in the stream of public consciousness. And Monday night’s performance at Wells Fargo Center was an exact reminder of why.  David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen photo: Aileen Bannon

Set openers Kool & the Gang were arguably the band’s best ever opener, playing their funk classics and smooth grooves such as ‘Too Hot,’ ‘Hollywood Swinging,’ ‘Get Down On It,’ and their anthemic set closer ‘Celebration.’

Van Halen followed shortly after with set opener ‘Unchained’ and ‘Runnin’ With the Devil,’ with guitar god Eddie Van Halen tearing through both songs with reckless precision.  

The band wasted very little time showcasing their new material from the month-old ‘A Different Kind of Truth.’  ‘She’s the Woman’ (an old club song dating back to the 70’s) and the album’s first single ‘Tattoo’ blended well next to concert favorites ‘Everybody Wants Some,’  ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor,’ and ‘The Full Bug’ from 1982’s Diver Down- a rarity that until recently hadn’t seen the light of day since 1983’s US Festival.

Back where he properly belongs for his second consecutive tour is David Lee Roth, whose demeanor has gone from “Squirt me one more time and I'll F$%K your girlfriend” to more of a circus ringmaster. Maintaining an ear to ear grin for most of the hour and fifty minute set, the upbeat Roth threw in some slightly comedic tempo changes (a la James Brown, which the band jumped right on) as well as some candy to the audience during ‘Hot For Teacher.’ Roth even showed a video of his sheepdogs while playing the acoustic intro to ‘Ice Cream Man’ (That is Roth playing on the original recording by the way).

Despite abandoning the Garth Brooks-like head set that was used earlier in the tour, there were times when Roth appeared to be trying too hard vocally (mainly on ‘Dance the Night Away’) as he sang (as well as talked) his way through the set. Despite the occasional vocal shortcomings however, Roth held his own on new track ‘The Trouble With Never,’ ‘Beautiful Girls,’ ‘Panama,’ ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,’ and set closer ‘Jump.’

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As usual, older Van Halen sibling Alex Van Halen (while keeping his trademark shades on for the ENTIRE show), is as steady as ever at 58 years of age. Van Halen’s kit (which included four bass drums converted into two gigantic ones) is much reminiscent of the one he used on the band’s initial 1978 tour. Alex effortlessly hammered his way through some of the sets heavier tracks like the new ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Hot for Teacher.’  The only issue was his signature drum solo, which unfortunately clocked in at a little less than three minutes.  

There’s not much more that can be said about the genius of Eddie (and I know it sounds like I know these guys, but you can only use Van Halen SO many times in this article).  I thought the point was reached where you had seen everything the 57 year-old guitarist had to offer. However, you’ll know that’s clearly not the case after you listen to ‘Truth.’  This is the best I’ve heard him play since the Van Halen III Tour in 1998, and it was pretty evident the entire show that he’s ecstatic to be on the road again. A ten-minute Eddie Van Halen solo is worth the price of admission alone. And as you’ll see below, he once again delivered.

 Eddie doesn’t move around quite like he used to after hip replacement surgery, but still made the occasional trips across the stage to interact with his son Wolfgang, who seems to have rejuvenated his father after joining the band. The 20-year old bassist, who looked out of sorts in his first go-round on the 2007 tour, maintained a strong stage presence while surprisingly handling the departed Michael Anthony’s background vocals with occasional help from his dad. Originally, I was strongly against the decision to not bring back Anthony. However, after watching him on Monday night, Wolfgang seems to fit right in. While he has a little bit to go before he’s quite on par with Anthony’s vocal ability, you could make a strong case that if it weren’t for his influence,‘Truth’ may never have come to fruition.Alex Van Halen photo: Aileen Bannon

Many will agree that one of several highlights of the young tour has been the diverse set list the band has chosen, and Monday’s show was no exception. Though some notable songs (‘Jamie’s Cryin’, ‘Little Guitars,’ ‘And the Cradle Will Rock’) were absent, the band did a solid job combining their hits with new material, in addition to deep cuts like ‘Girl Gone Bad,‘ and ‘Hear About it Later’. In fact, the band dusted off some songs they haven’t played since the Carter administration! (‘Woman in Love’ from Van Halen II).

The energy the band maintained throughout the show was admirable. But then again, effort has never been an issue with Van Halen. Even in the band’s heyday, a practice was never missed on account of their notorious rock and roll lifestyle. And despite their history of excess, they never bit the heads off of doves, fought a heroin addiction, or found themselves (for the most part) on the wrong side of the law (No, Roth’s pot bust doesn’t count). The only thing that ever held Van Halen back was Van Halen themselves.

The biggest question that remains here is whether Roth and Eddie can get along for an extended period of time. You saw the awkward body language between Eddie and Sammy Hagar on the 2004 tour. But in the early stages of this trek, there seems to be goodwill towards all. Despite their volatile history, Roth and Eddie both realize at this stage of the game that they need each other to bring out the best in themselves. Eddie has survived cancer and (for now) his issues with alcohol. If he can coexist with Roth on even the most civil level, there’s no reason why Van Halen can’t keep this thing going for a little while longer.

After all, everybody loves a party. And despite being a bit older and not as flashy, Van Halen showed Monday that they can still blow almost any band off the stage on any given night. And now that they’ve got some momentum (as well as a bit of youth), they could actually make this ride last after years of lost time.

Set List 

Unchained
Runnin' With the Devil
She's The Woman
The Full Bug
Tattoo
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
China Town
Hear About It Later
(Oh) Pretty Woman
Alex Van Halen Drum Solo
You Really Got Me
The Trouble with Never
Dance The Night Away
I'll Wait
Hot For Teacher
Women In Love
Girl Gone Bad
Beautiful Girls
Ice Cream Man
Panama
Eddie Van Halen Guitar Solo
Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
Jump

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Photos by Aileen Bannon