Thanks to Eddie, Van Halen still in great hands

04/25/2012 5:00 AM

04/26/2012 3:32 PM

There are several good reasons to go see Van Halen live, despite the fact that lead singer David Lee Roth is now 57, despite the fact that the current version of the band pretends like the Sammy Hagar years never existed, despite the fact that VH hasn’t produced a Top 40 hit with DLR as frontman since President Reagan’s first term in office.

One good reason: As he proved during Wednesday night’s concert at Time Warner Cable Arena, Diamond Dave is still a unique and watchable performer – a prancer, a preener, a high-kicker, a crotch-grabber, a bizarre, theatrical clown.

Another: The hits the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ did make so many years ago are some of the greatest fist-pumpers of all-time, from “Panama” and “I’ll Wait” to “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and “Dance the Night Away.”

But there’s only one truly great reason to see Van Halen live these days, and it’s the same reason there’s always been: Guitarist Eddie Van Halen is a rock god.

Dave is the band’s gimmick; Eddie is the band’s truth. Dave wears a black, sequined leather jacket and makes goofy faces; Eddie wears a plain black T-shirt and bites his lower lip. Dave twirls the mic stand like a samurai sword; Eddie just plays. And still, after all these years, the man is flat-out brilliant.

The staging for the “A Different Kind of Truth” tour is about as stripped down as it gets, with one exception: Looming over Roth and the three Van Halens (Alex on drums and Wolfgang on bass) was an utterly massive panoramic JumboTron. It’s the best and biggest I’ve ever seen at an arena show.

Anyway, for 21 songs on Wednesday night – including four from the band’s new album – the live feed cast onto it was rendered in black and white. But then everyone except Eddie left the stage, and the image burst forth in color as he broke into a 10-minute solo. The camera pulled tight on his hands, making them appear to be the size of a house.

Even if they didn’t know it, this was the moment the crowd had been waiting for all night.

Forget the incongruity of funk-tastic nostalgia group Kool & The Gang successfully firing up a crowd that was 99.9 percent white crowd with its 11-song opening set. Forget the dreadfulness of the sound mix that plagued much of Van Halen’s set and left many struggling to decipher a single word in lesser-known songs like “China Town.” And forget Roth’s meandering tangents about – among other things – his sheepdogs.

The world stops (or, at least, Van Halen fans do) and jaws drop when Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar, and this rule was not broken at the band’s Charlotte show. All eyes were on the screen, as his fingers produced sounds you didn’t realize could come from six strings and an amplifier, displaying a dexterity that instantly reduces a generation of “Guitar Hero” geeks to little boys with little-boy toys.

Muscular and sprawling, his solo eventually found its way to “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love,” propelling all but the most jaded fans to their happy place. Then Van Halen closed out the show with the mega-hit “Jump” – along with a promise to return soon.

So long as they bring Eddie with them, we’ll be back, too.

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