In this day and age of TMZ, Van Halen has been dominating the world of intragroup drama ever since founding member David Lee Roth left the band in the mid-’80s. With brothers Eddie and Alex calling the shots in their titular group, relationships with Roth’s former replacement Sammy Hagar and ex-VH bassist Michael Anthony have waxed and waned up to and including a recent story in Billboard magazine.
That said, fans have been clamoring for Roth and the Van Halen brothers to hit the road and as such, this has been one of the most hotly anticipated tours of 2015 (Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang has stepped in for Anthony since the latter was officially ousted from the band back in 2006). And while it’s gotten off to a rough start thanks to a nationally televised appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live where Roth wound up cracking himself in the nose while twirling a mic stand and coming away with 14 stitches for his trouble, the band’s recent swing through Nikon at Jones Beach revealed that most of the bugs seemed to have been ironed out.
With the founding members all sexagenarians, the band’s old school fans reflected this with plenty of middle-aged spreads and receding hairlines being the rule of thumb, with the younger contingent at the Jones Beach shows predominantly being made up of fans bringing their kids along to have the Van Halen experience.
While Alex Van Halen seems ageless, brother Eddie has shorn his long locks, gone gray and grown a goatee. Meanwhile, frontman Roth has also gone short and sprouted sideburns with the effect being the former looking like a long-lost sibling of Bob Seger and the latter reminiscent of a young Merle Haggard. But in the end, concert goers came for the music and did not leave disappointed.
Opening with “Light Up the Sky” off 1979’s Van Halen II, the band made it clear the set list was going to draw deeply from the six, Roth-fronted Van Halen studio albums. With the aforementioned frontman preening and strutting right out of the gate, it was immediately apparent that this was going to be AARP David Lee Roth. While there were no splits, in the air or otherwise, he periodically executed a number of high forward scissor kicks. And while the reputation for Roth’s singing on stage during his first run with the band was pretty specious, with anecdotes about a thread of disinterest running through those Golden Era live shows, maturity as a live performer is now part of his package.
Roth’s highpoint in the show was when he had a roadie bring out a chair, acoustic guitar, a harmonica and an accompanying brace and a bottle of whiskey. After pointing out that while Eddie might have gotten people in the tent, he was here to sell the Bibles, Roth regaled the crowd with stories about his late uncle Manny, the club owner who founded the renowned Cafe Wha?
While strumming away on his guitar laid flat on his lap and periodically blowing into his harmonica, Roth shared memories of a childhood visiting New York City in 1961 while up-and-comers Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan and Jimmy James (who later became Jimi Hendrix) were starting out. It all led to the acoustic intro to a cover of “Ice Cream Man” that blew up into the plugged-in version that’s a classic rock radio station staple. Roth also showed he’d overcome his mic stand issues via numerous maneuvers, which when he disconnected it from his base, he wound up furiously twirling like some kind of Gray Panther rock and roll ninja.
Alongside hits like “Beautiful Girls,” “I’ll Wait”and “Dance the Night Away,” Van Halen drilled into their canon for diehard faves like “Drop Dead Legs,” “Feel Your Love Tonight” and “Ain’t Talking’ ‘Bout Love.” But while Roth seems to have regained his mojo, it was most heartening to see Eddie Van Halen reascend to the throne of guitar god. This after dealing with various health woes in the past two decades ranging from hip replacement surgery and tongue cancer to alcoholism and substance abuse.
Beaming throughout the show, the guitarist pulled out all the stops—finger-tapping, volume fluctuations and a firm structured tone that never became distorted despite the decibels he was cranking out throughout the evening. The highlight of Van Halen’s six-string prowess came during an exhibition towards the end of the evening where he trotted out a greatest hits medley of seminal instrumentals that he’d recorded over the years that included the “Little Guitars Intro,” “Spanish Fly,” “Cathedral” and “Eruption.”
Following an encore of “Jump” that closed out the evening, it was clear that Van Halen was back—a little older and slower, but still able to take fans back to the group’s hallowed days.