I’ve seen a lot of shows over the years. And while a handful certainly rise above the rest, it’s incredibly rare that I leave a show feeling disappointed. I’m a sucker when it comes to music, and I can pretty easily get lost in the thrill and energy of a live performance. So in those very rare instances that a show flat out disappoints me, something really has to have gone horribly awry with the performance. I can be very forgiving, especially to the legends that I hold dear.
When Van Halen first reunited with David Lee Roth on the 2007-8 tour, I was stoked. This was the reunion that rock fans had been waiting for for over two decades. My sister and I bought tickets, only to have the band cancel (I believe Eddie was rehabbing it), and I couldn’t make the rescheduled date. So when the band announced a Pittsburgh date on it’s A Different Kind of Truth tour, my sister and I immediately ponied up money for nosebleed seats.
Kool & the Gang was an admittedly odd choice for an opener, but they were quite good, if predictable. While enjoyable, their energy and polish is no doubt partially due to the fact that only four original members remain. Nevertheless, expectations for an opening act are low to begin with – Kool & the Gang adequately ran through their hits as the yinzers filtered into the Consol Energy Center.
Then finally – Van fucking Halen. With David Lee fucking Roth. (And without Michael fucking Anthony, but I digress.)
They immediately launched into “Unchained,” a fan favorite and also one of my top 10 Running songs. Yet quickly, my brain struggled to process what my ears were hearing, trying to make sense of it all. Is this place that cavernous and echo-laden? Has Roth lost the ability to keep rhythmic time? Is it just that I can’t hear the guitar melody clearly enough, or is Roth going in and out of key wily nilly?
As the set progressed, it sadly seemed that yes, Roth was occasionally out of rhythm and yes, often out of tune. These discordant moments often seemed to be a result of a refusal to acknowledge the effects of his age. Diamond Dave can’t hit the soaring screams as he once did. That’s to be expected. Beyond the natural changes that age inflicts on one’s voice, using it as powerfully and excessively as Dave did for decades has no doubt contributed to the deterioration of his voice. Lest we also forget the excesses of alcohol and substance abuse in those golden years. All of this is to say that no one begrudges a middle aged vocalist who can’t quite match the performances of his youth. However, Roth seems intent on trying, and the result isn’t pretty.
What most marred the performance was an absolutely atrocious sound mix. It’s not that the band wasn’t loud – they surely were. But there was no distinction between the various elements, no nuance. It was pure rock and roll cacophony: one amorphous aural mush from which you could occasionally pick out Eddie’s signature riffs. The only other show I’ve seen at Pittsburgh’s fairly new Consol Energy Center was Lady Gaga’s Monsters’ Ball tour a few years ago. And while I had my gripes about that show, I don’t recall sound quality being one of them. Indeed, as the new Center was readying its public opening, one of the features touted in the press was the state of the art sound system (McCartney was the first show at the new center, after famously snubbing Pittsburgh for decades due to the Civic Arena’s subpar system and acoustics). So I doubt that this was a technical matter. Nevertheless, horrible sound can ruin a great performance; it can be absolutely devastating to a performance of questionable quality.
One of my regrets in not seeing Van Halen on the 2007-8 tour is that at the time, they weren’t promoting a new album. While A Different Kind of Truth competently recaptures the spirit of the band’s golden era, let’s face it – nobody bought a ticket for this tour just a-itchin’ to hear the boys play “Tattoo.” Granted, it’s inevitable that somewhere in the set, Dave was going to proudly proclaim, “This is one from our brand new record!” But four cuts from Truth seemed a little much.
That said, the setlist overall included a veritable hits package with a few deeper cuts thrown in for good measure (“Romeo Delight,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” “Girl Gone Bad”). With all of Dave’s flubs, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that the show’s high point was Eddie’s moment in the spotlight with a medley of “Eruption” and “Cathedral.” Eddie still has his chops, that much is certain. It was the one moment of the show where the 12-year old version of me was a bit in awe.
But mostly, the 30-year old version of me was a little sad. As I sat there listening to all of the classics, I began thinking about Van Halen’s stature in the hard rock world. Even when I was discovering their music in the early 1990s, there was a sense of legend and historical significance surrounding the band. I reminisced getting Van Halen I from the BMG Music Club, and listening to that album over and over and over again. There was always a hope that the band would reunite with Roth, especially among those of us who were not of concert going age in the band’s initial run. When I was devouring metal and rock magazines like Metal Edge and Hit Parader, a VH reunion with Roth was always one of those mythological events that we never thought would come to pass (see also: Kiss reunion with makeup). This reunion was the kind of thing that rock-obsessed teenagers like me fantasized about. On Friday night, I sat there thinking about how I’d always envisioned that fantasy playing out, and how far it was from the reality that I was experiencing. In some ways, I wish I still had only that fantasy to go off of.
I’ve heard very positive reviews of the tour from other folks. Perhaps the band just had an off night. Though it seems a stretch to have an off night on only the tenth stop of the tour, I just hope that others catching Van Halen this year are treated to a stronger performance than they gave to Pittsburgh.