Contributor Lexie Mountain is an epic Van Halen fan, and has an epic review of Wednesday night's show at the Verizon Center.
I have to admit: I was hoping for VAN HALEN-CON 2012. Sort of like Burning Man, but with a greater possibility of being set on fire by an errant can of Aqua Net or hassled in the parking lot by some toughs in Thom McAns. You know, a real circus. I wanted to fear for my life.
But I did not fear for my life.
Whole families, with their kids wearing Styx t-shirts, had come to see Van Halen at the Verizon Center Wednesday night. This, as the new series of t-shirts say, is the "A Different Kind of Truth" tour, not 1984. Van Halen is now a family affair, and they want to party with as many of you as possible, simultaneously.
Did you know that Wolfgang Van Halen, son of shredding Eddie, is TWENTY ONE? Very few people in the crowd are under twenty. I don't know the actual number, so I am going to make one up - one hundred, possibly one hundred and fifty kids, experiencing the awkwardness and joy that only a chaperoned concert experience can provide. Van Halen, it was clear, is a legacy, a family business you can be proud to bring your children to.
This was to be the tone of the evening. It explains their choice of Kool and the Gang as opening act. The Gang provided seamless yet dynamic versions of their 1980s selves, keeping their funky jams - "Ladies Night","Get Down On It" - locked down as tight as the drum kit in its acrylic box.
Even "Jungle Boogie," a song so well-known it is practically a simulacrum of itself, felt as if it had been dusted off and made real again. The very frisky Gang jumped and twirled, somersaulted with saxophones clutched to the chest, scooting all over the staircase stage.
By the time the stage-hands finished powdering David Lee Roth's parquet dance mats, the Verizon Center started to look a little more like the sold-out venue it was. Beer salesmen moved fast. Spirits were high. When Van Halen opened with "Unchained," I was surprised that the mostly-male audience on the floor did not riot and start throwing folding chairs, presumably because it is difficult to riot when both of your hands are gripping $8 Miller Lites.
(Also, this was Washington D.C. and not Sao Paulo or wherever it is that people lose their minds because they are seeing an actual rock band in the flesh.)
My surprise did not abate when "Unchained" became "Running With The Devil" and the chairs remained in place. The band sounded healthy. Dave's pipes were in good shape. The wear and tear of singing at top volume in what sounds like a "head-voice" became noticeable during moments of required sustain, but those moments did not matter so much because, "RUNNING WITH THE DEVIIIIIIL!!"
Immediately thereafter, VH poured into "She's The Woman," from their unfortunately-titled new record, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on how high the bar had been set, and how early on.
The set list unfolded like a game of tag between what the audience wants and what Van Halen needs to do. You want to see "Everybody Wants Some?" You're going to have to sit through "Tattoo" first.
"Dance the Night Away?" "Blood And Fire." Perhaps the proverbial 'Different Kind of Truth' is that you have to eat your vegetables first, so to speak. At one point during one of the new songs ("China Town") the jumbo-tron flashed an image of the album cover with the words "Available at" on it (Ed. HA!). But then, OH MY GOD "JAMIE'S CRYIN" AND IT SOUNDS AMAZING and all is forgiven.
The stage at Verizon Center was minimal. No catwalk. No Kanye West theme park stagecraft. No inflatables. No Peter Pan tricks. Black stairs matched Eddie's black shirt and Wolfgang's black outfit. The arachnid-looking black speaker racks above the stage matched Dave's black vest and sparkly black leotard pants.
Father and son strummed matching Frankenstrats and some familial back-to-back riffing infused the gigantic hall with a sense of warmth. Most of the time Wolfgang seemed pleased to be metaphorically staffing the counter at Dad's shop, even during the new songs from the new album that all blended together in an amorphous mass of Halen-ness. His backup harmonies blended so seamlessly with Eddie's that it was easy to think suddenly, "Did Michael Anthony get less creepy in the past twenty-five years?"
Diamond Dave grinned, jived, shuffled gamely upon the parquet mats. Tightly-timed high kicks were jumbo-tronned ad nauseam to remind the audience that it happened, little puffs of powder vaporizing off Diamond Dave's little white dance shoes. The vest stayed buttoned all night, even though the shirt underneath was changed for the encore.
Alex Van Halen delivered a drum solo that morphed in and out of perky Afro-Cuban rhythmics. Dave told him he looked like "the Frito tiger." I think Alex is looking more like Italian cartoon anti-hero RanXerox as he ages, which is to say interesting.
In a way, it was nice that the stagecraft was minimal and DLR's vest stayed on. It was also fine that Eddie sat down for his guitar solo. Why should he have to stand? Does it matter that he can't do scissor-kick jumps either because his hips ain't what they used to be?
My friend, scissor-kick jumps did not invent a custom guitar that is designed to deliver a signature tone for a signature style. Scissor-kick jumps made it special for a generation that came of age at the same time as Van Halen, or because of Van Halen. Those looking for echoes of the past would be best satisfied by the pure musicianship at hand and not think too hard about those Good Times and Where They Have All Gone.
Throughout the night, nostalgia slammed its head up against a wall of good-times-manship: "Ice Cream Man" turned into "Panama," and the floor of the auditorium shook, and that is a fact.
By the time the penultimate song, "Ain't Talking Bout Love," went down I felt personally responsible for bearing the weight of all head-banging in the entire building. The front row, while they appeared pleased to be where they are, is primarily fortyish white dudes standing implacably. Somewhere in there, a petite lady with white hair was going nuts, but gently.
I headbanged for her. I pointed at Wolfgang. I gave him a thumbs up and mouthed the words, "Great job!" "Jump" closed out the night, cueing confetti fountains and DLR waving a checkered flag so colossal that the scale of the auditorium collapsed and he became tiny again.
Lexie Mountain, nee Lexie Macchi, is a Baltimore-based musician and artist. She last reviewed Louis C.K. for Midnight Sun. Erik Maza edited this review.
Setlist, from Setlist.fm:
Runnin' With the Devil
She's the Woman
Romeo Delight The Full Bug
Everybody Wants Some
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Oh, Pretty Woman
You Really Got Me
Blood and Fire
Dance the Night Away
Hot for Teacher
Women In Love
Girl Gone Bad Hang 'Em High
Ice Cream Man
Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love