Van Halen. Red Rocks. 07.20.15
I don’t usually read other reviews before writing my own. It would be impossible for me to plagiarize someone else because I’m not a music critic, but it’s just easier to get my own thoughts down when I don’t have someone else’s opinions floating around in my head. It’s also very rare for me to write anything about a show that I didn’t like. I’m not a musician, so who am I to throw stones? Also, I’ve read negative reviews about shows that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and all they taught me was that it’s never a pleasurable experience to have someone tell you that what you enjoyed was crap. So who am I to take a shit on someone else’s enjoyment? That being said, it seems Van Halen really polarized the crowd at Red Rocks last night. I broke my own rule and skimmed the scathing review on Reverb’s site today. The negativity in the piece didn’t really surprise me, but the comments section did. I found so much anger flying back and forth between the fans who thought the show was awful and those who thought it was the best the band has been in years. I really wasn’t even going to share my thoughts on the show beyond a few text messages with close friends, but now I figure I can’t do any more damage than has already been done. Unless you are a huge fan of David Lee Roth as a person, I don’t think anything I say is going to offend you…but I guess I’ll leave it to the comments section to tell.
Let me start by setting a baseline. I didn’t get into Van Halen until 1984. I was 7 years old when that album was released and I can still see the look of horror on my mother’s face when she saw the album cover. Which was kind of ironic, considering she smoked at the time. Anyway, 1984 will always be one of those albums that defined my inevitable decent into rock ‘n roll. But it wasn’t long until David Lee Roth was out and Sammy Hagar was in. I was already a fan of Hagar’s solo work, and I had very little time invested in Van Halen at that point, so I was in the minority when 5150 was released. I thought it was a great album. My very first concert (that I chose to go to) was the OU812 Tour. And now, after seeing the band with David Lee Roth three times over the past eight years, I stand by my opinion that the Van Hagar show in ’88 was still the best Van Halen show I have ever been to. Granted, I was 11 years old and that was back when arena shows were the shit, but I also saw the band with Sammy on The Balance “Ambulance” Tour in ’95 and that was a great show as well. I empathize with those who swear it was NOT Van Halen without David Lee Roth. I even believed that for a long time — telling myself I only listened to those albums and went to those shows because it was the next best thing — but now I’m second guessing that opinion. Sure, the best albums were released between 1978 – 1984, but I think I might prefer the Sammy years to what is happening now.
Seeing Van Halen with David Lee Roth for the first time in 2007, at the same venue I saw the band perform for OU812, was the definition of a bucketlist experience. I remember the show fondly. Diamond Dave was a goofball, and he might not have sounded great, but that hardly mattered. I was wrapped up in child’s dream and nothing could diminish seeing all those classics performed with the original singer. It was the epic arena show that I knew it would be and any chink in the band’s armor was masked by a thick layer of nostalgia. When I saw them again in 2012, it wasn’t so easy to overlook the flaws. The setlist was still great, despite a mediocre new album, and Eddie and Alex both performed solos that brought the house down, but Dave was more flamboyant that he was entertaining. His voice cracked way too much. He didn’t sing half the lyrics. And his stage banter bordered on insulting. In fact, I walked out of there missing Sammy Hagar, which is something I could have never imagined myself saying before.
So, that brings us to last night at Red Rocks. I wasn’t going to go. The Pepsi Center show still sparked negative emotions in my mind and I just couldn’t justify spending over $200 for good seats. But as June 20th showed up on the horizon, I started worrying that I’d kick myself for not seeing Van Halen’s first appearance at my favorite venue. I worried that I would be missing out on THE show of the season. So I bought a standing-room GA ticket at a discounted rate and found myself cowering under a rain poncho on the endcap at Row 15 while the clouds relieved themselves on those who had shown up early to steal a good spot up front. I enjoyed a couple Dale’s Pale Ales while Kenny Wayne Shepherd cleared the sky with those crunchy blues riffs that he laid down so well. Shepherd and his band provided the sounds, going all the way back to “Déjà Voodoo”, as well as some B.B. King covers, while people found their way to their waterlogged seats. By the time the openers took their leave, the night had cooled down and cleared up, leaving a chill in the air and a crisp breeze ripe with anticipation.
Alex was the first Van Halen on stage last night. Perched up on his stacked kit, he set the scene for his brother, nephew and David Lee Roth. The skeletal lighting contraption served as the sole stage prop for the entire performance, as the band made the right decision to leave the granite backdrop exposed. It was their first time at Red Rocks, so concealing the natural aspects of the stage with a giant screen would have been to disrespect the venue itself. That being said, the crowd was over capacity, with ‘standing room only’ patrons stuck up above Row 70, so I’m sure the absence of magnified projections left those in the cheap seats squinting for over two hours. The band kicked things off (with Dave literally kicking his way across the stage) with “Light Up the Sky” from Van Halen II. It was a strong start, but it wasn’t until they lit themselves in red that the crowd went insane. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Red Rocks crowd as loud as they were during “Runnin’ With The Devil”. It was during that song that I realized it really didn’t matter if David Lee Roth could hit all the high notes or if Eddie wasn’t at 100% (not to say he wasn’t), because the people paid money to see Dave, Eddie and Alex (and Wolfgang) on stage together, performing classic Van Halen songs, and that is what was happening. And that is what continued to happen through a strong run from Women and Children First, and “Drop Dead Legs”, and “Feel Your Love Tonight”, and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”. Van Halen were just up there being Van Halen. At Red Rocks! And it was pretty damn cool! But…
Yes, there is a ‘but’, and it’s a pretty big ‘but’ — David Lee Roth was a douchebag. No matter how good the setlist, no matter how amazing the crowd, no matter how iconic the venue…David Lee Roth had to make it all about him. It didn’t matter to me that he wasn’t pitch perfect. And I wasn’t judging him for having to catch his breath once in a while…the man is 60 years old and he was running around doing split kicks at 6,400 feet for Christ’s sake! What I do blame him for is sucking the energy out of the set with his tedious tales of all the cool things he used to do when he was cool. He went on one of the most uninspired speeches about the Rocks I have ever heard at the venue. He went on about how he knocked over a buffet and then ate breakfast from the floor. A story about his lowrider took up valuable stage time, but seemed to have no point at all. When he started in on ‘the roof is on fire, we don’t need no water…” during “Hot For Teacher”, I almost felt sorry for him, but then he had to show off his new Japanese tattoos – which he wore like the scales of a Vegas lounge lizard — and I threw up in my mouth a little. It wasn’t enough just to wear a reflective vest, he had to talk about that too. “This was made for guys trying not to get hit, but I’ve spent my entire career just trying to get a hit!” That play on words didn’t even make sense. It was literally just another reason for him to run his mouth. The Ozzy Osbourne antidote, which went on for an eternity and then some, was when I should have given up, but the “lesbian hooker asses of evil” gem was when I finally stopped listening. I understand it’s all rock star schtick, but he just came off as an aging cheesedick who didn’t understand that he was the real joke. Why he couldn’t just stick to singing and dancing is beyond me, but at the end of the day he demolished the vibe right before “Ice Cream Man” way more than a couple tracks from A Different Kind Of Truth could have done.
“Unchained” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” did a lot to salvage the damage done, but at that point I had been at Red Rocks holding down my prime real estate on the endcap for almost five hours. It was time for me to go. I listened to Eddie serenate the Rocks with skill as I made my way to the car. Denying myself “Panama” and “Jump” was a hard decision to make, but it was one that David Lee Roth made for me. I really just couldn’t handle that guy anymore. I was alone though. Despite what may have been written in that other review, there weren’t many of us leaving early. Not many at all.
I’ve seen Van Halen five times now. I count myself lucky. If you’ve never seen them, I recommend doing so. They are iconic and they really do put on a great show. Eddie and Alex have still got it and Wolfgang holds his own in the absence of Michael Anthony. Everyone should see them once. But it’s over for me. I won’t be seeing them again unless they find a new singe….uh, never mind, that’s probably a bad idea as well. It didn’t really work out for anyone last time.
Light Up the Sky
Runnin’ With the Devil
Everybody Wants Some!!
Drop Dead Legs
Feel Your Love Tonight
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
She’s the Woman
Dance the Night Away
Women in Love
Hot for Teacher
In a Simple Rhyme
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
You Really Got Me