Van Halen at Staples Center: Arena rock in its natural habitat
Arena rock was made for moments like this: a killer sound system with amplifiers stacked high onstage and hanging from support beams, all aimed at a hometown crowd. A master drum kit placed on a glowing pedestal; a microphone stand at the center of an acre of stage, awaiting a lead singer itching to scream.
All that was missing at Van Halen’s eagerly anticipated return to Los Angeles on Friday night at Staples Center were the Bic lighters, feathered hair, and a fleet of Trans Ams cruising up and down Figueroa. Well, that and a sense of cohesion.
This rock scene was laid out before the four-piece, born in Pasadena in 1972, like a feast, one that was four decades, a handful of break-ups, three lead singers, three bassists, and some legendary animosity in the making.
This was the first L.A. stop on the band’s highly publicized, expertly marketed -- and recently scaled-back -- reunion tour. Van Halen and its original lead singer, David Lee Roth, appeared at Staples to remind a hometown population how and why they erupted from the Sunset Strip to become one of the biggest arena rock bands in the world.
But aside from a few oversized rock 'n' roll moments -- an impressive late-set guitar solo from co-founder Eddie Van Halen, an odd but engaging Alex Van Halen drum solo, some funny Roth quips, and the sheer thrill of witnessing four really good musicians/performers onstage offering up hit after glorious hit -- Van Halen’s grand return never really felt like it got going. It was instead interrupted at nearly every key moment by lesser songs from the band’s recent album, “A Different Kind of Truth."
They played four from the new record in a set of 22 songs, but those four, along with a number of overly long, pointless end-song extensions, served as speed bumps that slowed down a band which at its racing-striped prime would have squealed across with burn-rubber abandon.
That abandon seems to have mostly vanished in the rearview mirror for the obvious reason that no one can sustain such a decadent lifestyle before crashing and/or burning. But the best of Van Halen's songs are so powerfully constructed that they’ll prevail as long as Eddie’s fingers can handle them and Diamond Dave can yowl out a string of syllables.
Anyone who grew up on rock radio in the 1970s or '80s knows this, and the band offered them: “Hot for Teacher,” “Dance the Night Away,” “I’ll Wait,” “Panama,” and, of course, “Jump,” as well as their classic covers of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The best of them was "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," which was so convincing a performance that it rendered a lot of lesser stuff pointless.
They tore through “Runnin’ With the Devil” early in the set, it seemed solid evidence that the recently announced tour postponement wasn’t due to the kind of internal strife that has crippled reunion efforts in the past. The smiles onstage seemed genuine.
Last week, in fact, Roth released a video assuring fans with his most salesman-like eye twinkle that everyone was “getting along famously,” but that, “as usual, we bit off way more than we could chew when it came to scheduling.”
And his stage maneuvering on Friday seemed specifically designed to dispel the rumored strife. He did a lot of wide-smiled gestures at Eddie’s many guitar solos, pointed to bassist (and Eddie’s son) Wolfgang like he’d just witnessed a virgin birth, and offered kudos to Alex on the drums with a sense of wonder. There was nary a glare to be seen.
But despite all the hype, the concert on the whole felt lackluster; the crowd, while at capacity, was eager to remain seated (though the floor-seat dwellers remained standing for most of the evening). New songs came, much of the crowd sat down and took a few slugs of beer, and then the songs were over. "China Town" has no place on a set list that excludes "Jamie's Crying." "Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” one of the lesser songs from "Van Halen II," featured an unjustifiably drawn-out ending.
The sluggishness wasn’t for lack of effort. Roth was his joyously affable self, a character who a century earlier would have been a circus ringleader or a traveling elixir salesman, but who from 1972 until his departure from the band in ’85 became one of the world’s most celebrated and imitated rock stars. At Staples he didn’t swing from ropes, and limited his scissor kicks to key moments, preferring instead to do a variation on the soft-shoe on the parquet floor.
Eddie still has the chops, even if the big-screen close-ups of his fingers while soloing revealed a few worrisomely gnarled knuckles. This didn't seem to affect his playing, and watching his extended solo, which occurred near the end of the set and featured a few different stylistic accents, was enough to make a fan hope that once this tour concludes he puts his arena rock days behind him and pushes outside of his comfort zone with an instrumental guitar album.
His son Wolfgang inherited his father's abilities, and on Friday repeatedly showed that even though nepotism helped him get the job, his heavy duty lines -- and ability to lock into a groove with Uncle Alex -- can silence the doubters.
And for Diamond Dave? His late-set solo acoustic lead in to "Ice Cream Man," accompanied by film footage of his dogs wrangling sheep and cattle on Roth's farm, seemed the result of a contract negotiation to help him launch whatever he’ll be doing once this Van Halen engine runs out of steam. That he hasn't leapt into the world of reality TV is a testament to his intelligence, even if he'd be a blast on "Celebrity Apprentice." If nothing else, he's a charmer, and this paycheck can earn him enough money to negotiate more acreage and livestock, even if it doesn't revive his singing career.
Despite all the talent, and those songs, Friday night offered evidence that nostalgia by definition seldom moves a person forward, rarely satisfies in the long run, and can only sustain a certain number of concerts before weariness sets in.
-- Randall Roberts Twitter: @liledit
Photo: Van Halen at Staples Center. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times