Live Review: Van Halen at Sleep Train Amphitheatre, September 30, 2015

Van Halen
Photo credit: Abby Gillardi

One of the thrills in going to see a Van Halen reunion with original lead singer David Lee Roth is wondering if the band is really going to show up. Given the legendary love/hate relationship between Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, there’s always a bit of uncertainty as to how the tour will pan out. Did they make it through last night’s gig intact? Will things implode on stage tonight?

Turns out San Diego got lucky, and the foursome — which also includes brother Alex Van Halen on drums and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, taking over for Michael Anthony on bass — not only showed up to play Chula Vista’s Sleep Train Amphitheatre, they gave the enthusiastic, testosterone-heavy crowd two solid hours of hard-rock hijinks on this, the penultimate stop on the band’s 2015 North American tour.

The stellar set list, primarily culled from the band’s 1978-1984 oeuvre, featured obvious hits (including “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Panama”), several fan favorites (among them “Everybody Want Some!!” and “Unchained”), and even some unlikely choices, such as show opener “Light up the Sky” (a lesser-known cut from Van Halen II) and “She’s the Woman” (from the 2012 release A Different Kind of Truth).

Diamond Dave, who turns 61 this month, has expectedly lost some luster over the years. His dance moves aren’t as slick as they used to be (wasn’t certain he was going to spring back from that third split during “Beautiful Girls”) and his singing, well, ranges from passable to laughable. He’s fine shouting through lyrics with the band’s sonic wave behind him, as on “Dirty Movies.” But ask him to carry a melody without much coverage — consider “Women in Love” — and you’ve got trouble.

What Roth truly excels at is being the class clown. His antics tonight ranged from the classic shoving the mic down his pants to create a prominent bulge during “I’ll Wait” to using the stand as an extension of his manhood. And then there was the “Romeo Delight” invitation to the girl in the front: “Use my hand, I won’t look.” If there’s one thing Dave loves, it’s phallic inferences.

Less overt, but even more perplexing, the singer would occasionally slip into Austin Powers speak (“Yeah, baby!”) or, having tied a large scarf to his mic stand, alternatively raise it up like a white truce flag or hold it in front of him like a matador’s cape. Oddities aside, there’s one thing you can’t deny: David Lee Roth is a consummate entertainer.

Eddie, pure and simple, remains one the greatest living rock guitar gods. To watch him make his axe sing — as he did during his virtuosic solo following “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and on the encore “Jump” — is like watching Rembrandt paint: He is the instrument, not that piece of wood in his hands. And a more humble than usual Roth seemed to appreciate him as much as we did, at one point saying to Eddie, “The highpoint of my whole life is playing on stage with you,” and capping it off with a kiss on his head.

It was actually a pretty touching moment. And yet, following the show’s final notes and group bow, the three Van Halens exited stage right as Roth sauntered off by himself to the left…causing one to wonder: Would the band really show up in Hollywood two nights later to close out the tour?

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