Van Halen Bring Out the Best in the Northwest

Little dreamers.

David Lee Roth has a fantastic tailor. And I'm pretty sure those amps went to 11. The initial thing that grabbed me was the gold, embroidered suit coat he was wearing when he strutted onto KeyArena's stage during "You Really Got Me," the Kinks cover that Van Halen have owned since the band's inception in 1978. Roth was dressed in a tastefully embellished and precisely tucked jacket that exuded all the factors that made him one of the most flamboyant, ballsy, and wildly charismatic frontmen in rock 'n' roll history. There's no way in hell to retroactively capture what made VH a monster metal act back in the day, and really, there's no dignified reason to try. What Diamond Dave conveyed onstage at KeyArena for two hours on Monday night was simply a joyous and affectionate nod to their debauched, decadent, and gold-record-strewn past. I spent the hours prior to the show at Bandits, a Wild West–themed bar on Denny Way, at the suggestion of Ben London, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Recording Academy. Despite that exhaustive title, London is a succinct and practical fellow. He sent out an e-mail to me, Tractor booking agent/Presidents of the United States of America guitarist Andrew McKeag, Long Winters leader John Roderick, and Sonic Boom co-owner Nabil Ayers that read, "We can't possibly go see Van Halen on Monday without having a little pre-party. Since we are all too wise (old) to drink a stolen bottle of Jack in the parking lot, I suggest we meet at Bandits." And so we did, along with a gleeful crew of veteran musicians that included producer/former Fastback Kurt Bloch, former Pavement guitarist/Preston School of Industry frontman Scott Kannberg, and the notably younger Lonely H vocalist Mark Fredson. The conversation covered much nostalgic ground, including McKeag's whiskey-fortified Lynyrd Skynyrd experience, Bloch's attendance at multiple VH shows, and our collective memories of standing in line to buy tickets for the Scorpions. This retrospective preamble was ideal for what greeted us when we entered the arena (even though we had to face the unpleasant reality that beer drinking was forbidden during the show). From the grinding euphoria of "Atomic Punk" to ideal lyrical references in "Hot for Teacher" ("I heard you missed us, we're baaaaack!"), everyone was on their feet. Wearing a Van Halen logo shirt and stretching to replicate Michael Anthony's signature backing vocals, replacement bassist Wolfgang Van Halen (son of VH guitarist Eddie) was as awkward as could be expected from an adolescent thrust into the classic-rock spotlight. He was also obviously thrilled to be sharing the stage with his family, and the heartwarming factor in that could not be denied. David Lee Roth was the only one making costume changes—Eddie and Alex made due with their trademark white cargo pants and headband, respectively—and he was also busy as the obviously galvanizing force behind all the smiles in the crowd. Without DLR, it's safe to say 99 percent of the ticket holders wouldn't have been there. He was also responsible for the show's most touching and nearly artful moment. Prior to "Ice Cream Man," he shared a vivid yarn about hanging with a buddy who owned an ice-cream truck and lived above his parents' garage in a stoner haven outfitted with black walls, black light, a dartboard, and a velvet Jimi Hendrix poster. Describing the pinpricks of light that formed when their darts perpetually missed the mark, he said they felt like they were flying "in the Starship Enterprise" and confessed that the girl he would spend the next three years with made her impression on him in that room by mocking his masculinity. It was sweeter than it sounds. For his part, Eddie Van Halen more than held his own (unlike his brother, drummer Alex, who suffered from some bizarre and distracting tempo fluctuations). Though he's guilty of setting a tedious precedent for noodlers nationwide, his showboating solo reminded everyone why that self-taught guitarist should be viewed as a national treasure. Say what you will about his limp keyboard lines on "Jump," but the guy created a guitar sound that no one else has even come close to replicating. By the time the confetti cannons showered the crowd and Dave strutted around the stage perimeter like the ageless gigolo he is, the verdict was in: Van Halen never were talking about love, but their passionate delivery remains worthy of ours.

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