The first album I ever bought with my own money was Van Halen‘s self-titled debut at Cellophane Square in Bellingham; we’ll just say in the late 70’s. I’d heard parts of the album in a friend’s car and was blown away by the noises the band was making. These noises were somewhat new to me though as I’d been raised on a steady diet of Elvis Presley, traditional country and a little bit of blues. At that point in my life, if a hard rock band like Van Halen wasn’t being played on AM radio and didn’t have top 40 hits, I likely didn’t know about them. Sure, I lived a few doors down from Randy Bachman at the time and everyone loved BTO, but even then, all I’d really heard from them was what was on the radio.
But when I discovered Van Halen, I instantly fell in love with the electric guitar and literally could not get enough of it; still can’t. That’s not to say I don’t like or love other music (even some with no guitar at all… gasp) but my first love will always be the electric guitar and I have Edward Van Halen to thank for that.
Much has been said about Van Halen recently as the hype was building in preparation for the now current tour. Sam and Dave took pot shots at each other in the national media, Eddie and Sam blasted each other with well-crafted PR articles in Loudwire….etc. I tried to ignore that stuff, because it was taking away some of the fun for me, although I understand the media game and, well, the show and tour was pretty well-hyped, right? So it worked.
Sunday night, out in the middle of a bunch of cow pastures, nestled on a plateau above Auburn, Washington, Van Halen took the stage at White River Amphitheater for the first show of the North American leg of the 2015 tour. The energy inside the venue was at a crazy level as the show-goers were anticipating a monster show, and that’s what they got. Kenny Wayne Shephard blew the roof off and some minds in the process with a blistering set, but we’ll be talking about him in a different review. Check that HERE.
I was fortunate enough to be standing in the photo pit when the house lights went down, signifying that it was show time. Alex Van Halen waltzed out on stage first, followed by the rest of the band, Alex’s brother Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen, who replaces Michael Anthony on the bass and backing vocals. I’ve read many things on the internet that said Wolfie could never replace Michael Anthony, but I’d greatly beg to differ about that. Now, I love Michael and his contributions to Van Halen – I’ve even interviewed him and he’s a really great guy to talk to – but people have to remember that Wolfie has been listening to and jamming with his dad and uncle for a long, long time. He likely knows these songs as well as anyone on the planet (including Mike), and he totally proved that in Auburn on July 5, 2015. I can’t think of one time when he missed a note on the bass and the harmonies with his pops were spot on. In fact, if someone didn’t see who was on the bass and backing vocals I’d bet they couldn’t even tell the difference. In my opinion, the only people that “think” they can tell the difference are Van Halen purists. And let’s be clear: Wolfie is not coming to Van Halen from the “rent-a-bassist” program. His uncle and dad are in the band and as far as I’m concerned he is the guy and should be from now on.
The beginning of the set let the sun-drenched crowd know what to expect as they flew into “Light Up the Sky”, which they haven’t played live for over 35 years, and the tone was set. Now, I know a lot of people were expecting this to be an absolute trainwreck after some of the recent TV appearances, but you have to understand that Dave is Dave, he always has been and always will be like this. Van Halen is not the kind of band that you go to see to hear every song exactly as it is appears on the album, at least from Dave’s angle. That said, he did a great job on the vocals proving that, and I’ve been saying this for a long, long time, he can sing when he wants to. During that first number, Eddie was sharp and immediately on his game; with him and his son and brother all on the same page, they killed that song and the crowd was in a frenzy just minutes into the gig. Then came the sirens and “Running With the Devil” and Dave once again delivered the goods and, haters be damned, sang that as good as he ever has live.
I don’t think any of us have the time to run through a play-by-play of each and every song (they played 25 songs in a two hour set) and this review would be several thousand words long, but the highlights of the night certainly were the first two, but then add songs like “Drop Dead Legs” and “Dirty Movies” that they’ve never performed live and you get the sense that this was a special night.
After a spirited version of “I’ll Wait” from the band’s ‘1984’ album, Ed’s brother Alex got the stage all to himself and once a gain proved that he is a force to be reckoned with on the kit. He tortured the skins as he sat back with his trademark mirrored shades on and double-bass drum set up with the prominent VH logo to either side and when he was done, stood up as the raucous crowd screamed, clapped and threw up their arms in loving approval of his mad skills.
It’s hard to find the right amount of the right superlatives that describe Eddie Van Halen on the guitar live. He’s one of those rare guitarists that is so in tune with his instrument that it almost plays him instead of vice versa. His playing was incredibly tight and, of course, his unmistakable monster tone was top-notch. Eddie also looked very, very healthy and, with a smile on his face all night long, he was having a blast. During his trademark guitar solo that gives the rest of the band a break, he proved he is a guitar god, unlike anyone else on the planet. These seven-plus minutes of absolute guitar nirvana had the audience in an awestruck trance that everybody there would’ve been fine with being stuck in for the rest of their lives.
About four or five songs in, Ed and Dave fist bumped and that feel-good moment made the crowd happy. We all know about their history, so to see them once again connect like this on stage was special. Later on in the night after a “heavily improvised” version of “You Really Got Me”, the two shook hands, which was another awesome sight.
Here’s the White River setlist from setlist.com
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
Another highlight of the night was Campfire story time with Diamond Dave. As a roadie brought out a tiny acoustic guitar, a stool and a harmonica mounted to a mic stand, Dave sat down and told stories. He said he played baseball as a child and had to play way, way out in the field (because he wasn’t much of an athlete), but he was out in the field by the ice cream truck, and when he said that, the crowd knew what was coming. With Roth plucking the guitar, he blew on the mouth harp and sang some of the words to “Ice Cream Man” off of their debut album. After several minutes, he looked to the side of the stage and asked “Ready boys?” and the other three members launched into the electric part of the iconic rock song and they tore it the hell up.
So it’s a safe bet that a lot of people will read this review and expect to hear how bad Dave was. Sorry to disappoint you if you came for that, because I did not see it that way. Dave sounded as good as he has in a long time and judging by the reaction of the near-capacity crowd, most of them will agree. If you come to hear a Van Halen jukebox, this show might not be for you, but if you want to be thoroughly entertained by one of the most flamboyant and theatrical frontmen that has ever stood on stage in front of an audience, with one of the greatest bands of all time, with one of the greatest guitarists of all time, then this tour is for you.
Read “Iron” Mike Savoia’s review of July 7 Ridgefield show HERE