ATLANTIC CITY — When David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen kissed and made up after 20 years leading to a 2008 performance at Boardwalk Hall, the expectations were high.
Although solid, the concert came across like an overpublicized blast from the past that showed the classic rockers mostly going through the motions as they ripped through their impressive arsenal of hits.
Four years later, Van Halen returned to Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night with reduced expectations. Time is not kind to anyone, particularly rock stars.
And time certainly has not helped Van Halen. Roth, once a maniacal frontman capable of doing splits in the air, can’t “Jump” as high anymore. Now, he just seems maniacal. Eddie Van Halen — while still offering frequent reminders of why he should be considered a guitar god — has lost a step. Alex Van Halen, although still an awesome drummer, doesn’t pound the kit like he used to. And Wolfgang Van Halen simply can’t hold a candle — on bass or vocally — to Michael Anthony.
But it’s hard — very hard — not to get goosebumps when Roth does one of his trademark, goofy squeals and does a high kick over his head Or when Alex offers the intro to “Hot for Teacher.” Or when Eddie rips into “Eruption.”
The sold-out crowd — mostly 40 and up — was certainly into it. There’s nothing like a good arena show from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers satisfied to play hit after hit. Most of Saturday’s concert — like the 2008 show — featured material from the band’s six albums from 1978 to 1984. And also like 2008, there were no tunes, thankfully, from the Sammy Hagar or Gary Cherone eras.
The setlist was rearranged but still had most of the VH classics fans paid up to $150 to hear. Opening with two barn-burners — “Unchained” and “Runnin’ with the Devil” — the crowd stood with fists raised, singing along to nearly every word, something they did for a good deal of Saturday’s concert.
The biggest difference this time around was that the band actually had a new album to tour behind. And although “A Different Kind of Truth” is a pretty decent outing, Van Halen was smart enough to offer only four new tracks, spreading them out through the set.
The new songs, particularly the single “Tattoo” and “She’s the Woman,” stood out, with the latter offering the stellar guitar licks reminiscent of the Eddie rock fans fell on their knees for 40 years ago.
As expected, the most memorable moments came when the band played their smashes. By the time the crowd left, they heard “Dance the Night Away,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” and “I’ll Wait,” as well as their famous covers of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
Van Halen also mined some deep tracks that may have surprised the crowd, offering the rocking “Hear About It Later” from “Fair Warning” and “Women in Love” from “Van Halen II,” which may have a guitar solo more mind-numbing than “Eruption.”
But the deep tracks and new songs meant the band didn’t have the time — or energy — to play some of their better known songs, including “And the Cradle Will Rock” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.”
Van Halen, while certainly not anywhere near its prime, still can bring it, playing more than 20 songs for just under two hours. With a basic stage set-up, the band seemed content to let the music speak for itself. The only bling were on Roth’s sparkly outfit and an IMAX-size screen that gave everyone in the arena a front- seat view.
Diamond Dave may not have the vocal prowess he once had — taking the easy way out vocally around high notes some of the time — but he’s still an exciting and entertaining frontman. He commands the stage and looks incredibly young and fit for 57 years old. He may not be able to hit the ceiling with his roundhouse kicks anymore, but he’s still fun to watch.
Eddie Van Halen — despite all of his personality flaws, substance abuse issues and bout with cancer — is actually playing better now than he did when he performed outdoors in 2004 at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, where he basically embarrassed himself.
If the audience was looking for blistering, clever solos with ridiculous speed and precision, they pretty much got it Saturday night. People call him a guitar god for a reason. And he remains one.
The biggest disappointment of the 2012 Van Halen is the absence of Anthony. It’s not that Wolfgang isn’t a decent bassist, because he’s certainly solid. But the 21-year-old just seems out of place standing next to these rock legends. He just hasn’t earned the right. And he doesn’t offer the backing vocals like Anthony did, which really set Van Halen apart from so many other rock bands.
After two tours with the reunited lineup in four years, it’s clear Van Halen is running on fumes. But that doesn’t stop hundreds of other classic rock bands from touring every few years and making tons of cash doing it. And if Van Halen can maintain this level of play without self-destructing, they are still better than most of those acts.
Kool and the Gang was a fun and unlikely choice for an opener. A huge contrast from the hard rock of Van Halen, Kool and his nine-piece ensemble won over the crowd early with their swinging funk.
Energetic and talented, the horns were blaring for “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Celebration,” and there’s no doubt Kool and the Gang earned lots of new fans on this tour.
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