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Van Halen @ United Center: Slow start, big finish

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(Photos by Curtis Lehmkuhl/Sun-Times Media)


Whatever you think of David Lee Roth -- and despite his rough start Friday night at Chicago's United Center -- it's good to have him back.

Seeing Roth on stage again with the band that made him famous, and vice versa, is like seeing your political party return to the White House: Finally, we can get some real work done and just, you know, forget the last several years.

The Indiana-born Roth was the first of three Van Halen administrations. Roth's high-kicking cabaret act established trade in the '70s and secured the band superpower status by "1984." (He returned for a 2007 reunion tour.) Sammy Hagar provided stable leadership off and on from the mid-'80s and into the new century -- but with the personality of Gerald Ford. Somewhere in there was Extreme singer Gary Cherone, Van Halen's Van Buren. Through it all riffed the namesake guitarist with the precocious grin, Eddie Van Halen.

Roth, however, probably would like to forget the first several songs of Friday's show, the fourth on the veteran rock band's current tour with its prodigal singer. They opened with "You Really Got Me," Van Halen's hit cover of the Kinks, and then it took nine more songs to work out some other kinks.

First, Roth complained about the air conditioning. "Shut that sh-- off!" he demanded of no one in particular. By "Tattoo," the lead single from Van Halen's first album in 14 years, "A Different Kind of Truth," Roth was coughing and pleading for "the blower" to stop ("Somebody Get Me a Doctor," indeed). He then started begging for water. He asked for earplugs. He asked for duct tape.

All this was requested between songs and between verses of songs through the Garth Brooks headset he was wearing, which was sending electric pops through the PA until Roth finally tore it off and flung it offstage. He was handed a wireless mike. Didn't work. He grabbed a mike with a cord -- and not only did that finally function, but it kinda brought him back alive.

What characteristic is Roth most praised for? Being a showman, of course, and through all this strife (however much of a diva tantrum it might have been) Roth kept his game face on. It's an unsettling face -- a hard-as-nails Stepford smile and live-wire-wide eyes -- but he continued juicing the crowd, egging us on, trying desperately to keep the show on the rails. Sometimes he looked exhausted, but he pressed on. With a corded mike, he had something to do with his hands, something to fling and flip, some muscle memory from the heydays. Diamond Dave was back.

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As the opening riffs of "Dance the Night Away" unfolded, a cheered Roth said, "I love this one!" From then on, the chemistry was percolating again. Dave and Eddie leaned into each other and mugged for the stage camera. It might be a bit creepy for these old guys to still sing "Hot for Teacher," but the way they smoked the tune was undeniable, complete with a big cymbal-crashing finish.

Eddie showed off his superlative, smorgasbord-of-styles guitar playing, shredding through "Unchained," "I'll Wait" and the requisite six-part, wanky special-effects solo near the end. You'd never guess he had serious surgery two years ago on his left hand.

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With Eddie's brother Alex on drums and Eddie's 20-year-old son Wolfgang on bass, the band is now practically a Dutch dynasty. Wolfgang has taken his lumps for not living up to original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony; true, he doesn't always possess the same thunderous thwack, but he's worthy of the tumbling showcase in new song "She's the Woman" and the groove breakdown in "Trouble."

It all ended -- no encore, the band played straight through -- with the synths of "Jump" played on a track and a shower of confetti. Maybe not a whole show worthy of celebration, but glimmers of hope for more fun to come if things can just hold together.

Opening Friday's show was Kool & the Gang, on paper perhaps an odd selection but in practice a great way to kick off a "Celebration." The 11-man lineup threw down a lively party with some serious locked grooves, a hot horn section and plenty of James Brown choreography. This is one of those bands with a ton of hits a crowd often recognizes only when they hear them: "Jungle Boogie," "Too Hot," "Ladies Night" and "Get Down on It."


Van Halen's Friday night set list

"You Really Got Me"
"Runnin' With the Devil"
"She's the Woman"
"Romeo Delight"
"Tattoo"
"Everybody Wants Some!!"
"Somebody Get Me a Doctor"
"China Town"
"Mean Street"
"Oh, Pretty Woman"
Alex Van Halen drum solo
"Unchained"
"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"


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 25, 2012 12:22 AM.

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