BRISTOW, VA. — It's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how fortunate we are to be living in a time when Van Halen is whole again — performing, and maybe even making new music.
As recently as a few years ago, this happy outcome hardly looked likely. It had been years since the virtuosic frontman David Lee Roth had played with guitar genius Eddie Van Halen, and decades since they'd made a real record together – time in which the sides alternated between floating ideas for reunions of one sort or another and taking shots at each other in the press.
But then came the surprise announcement of a new record, and 2012's "A Different Kind of Truth" turned out to be better than anyone had a right to expect – better, in fact, than anything the band had done since Roth left after "1984."
Then came a real tour, with new music mixed in with the familiar hits, and sounding every bit as good. A live album – the band's first with Roth out front – this spring, and talk of a return to the studio this fall.
The Van Halen that arrived at Jiffy Lube Live Saturday night felt not like a heritage act, but a working band that might yet have more to say.
And here's how they took the stage: They snuck up on it. One moment there was the canned music they play while the people were buying their $14.50 cans of beer and their little sleeves of candied almonds, and then, before anyone knew what had happened, Roth and Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang Van Halen had run out and were tearing into "Light Up the Sky."
And that's another thing. The set list tended away from the obvious in favor of album cuts. They have to play "Jump," I guess, but in addition to "Sky," we got "I'm the One," "Romeo Delight," "In a Simple Rhyme" and "Dirty Movies." This was no mere oldies tour.
I don't mind the hits, either, so I was glad when the show proper began with a thumping "Runnin' With the Devil," and the jungly "Everybody Wants Some!!"
How did they sound? Great. Better, probably, than 30 years ago, because that's 30 years of Eddie Van Halen refining his guitars and amplifiers. They sounded unmistakably like Van Halen: Alex's busy, often tribal beats, Eddie and Wolfgang's helium harmonies, and, of course, Eddie's endlessly innovating guitar: the boogieing little rhythm riffs and licks, the melodic hammering, the squealing pinch harmonics. (That's another thing for which to be grateful: the opportunity to be in the same room as that remarkable sound – the most distinctive guitarist since Hendrix.)
Roth, in glittery purple jacket and comprehensive tattoos, sings like he always did – more showman than technician, howling and yelping, leering and winking as he shuffles across the stage. Raising a kind of cross-generational showbiz shtick, with roots in vaudeville and the carnival midway, to a kind of performance art, he fully committed to its own insincerity.
In that spirit, as Roth performed, he also provided a kind of play-by-play report on the set, in a series of asides throughout the evening: "Here's the best part of the song, right here," before a drum break in "Light Up the Sky." "Oh, this is a good one," as if surprised and delighted to hear the opening to "Women in Love." And "This is like power radio right here – no space between songs. … More bang for your buck."
It was, in fact, power radio — whatever that is — from "Little Guitars" through "Dance the Night Away," "Beautiful Girls" and "Women in Love."
Then came the moment that the Van Halens left the stage to Roth – himself a useful guitar player – for "Ice Cream Man." The frontman seemed to drop all irony to talk for a bit about the lasting impact of parents, teachers and coaches, the playground in Pasadena, Calif., near his childhood home and the Van Halens', his experience playing youth football and the way the world sounds different through a helmet. Then the song, and the rest of the band crashing in, and soon "Unchained," with "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" on its heels.
Eddie also had his solo set piece, which he rendered as a kind of suite incorporating some of his most distinctive instrumental passages not otherwise in the set: excerpts from "Eruption," "Mean Streets," and "Cathedral," each innovative in a different direction.
While Roth spent the night mugging, Eddie was beaming – I've been trying to decide whether beatifically or like the Buddha, so let's make it both – as if he was as delighted as the rest of us to hear what was coming out of his fingertips.