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Concert Reviews:
Van Halen rocks but doesn't roll smoothly at the Palace
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

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AUBURN HILLS -- When Robert "Kool" Bell of opening act Kool & the Gang asked a sold-out Palace crowd if it was ready for Van Halen on Monday night, Feb. 20, it certainly seemed superfluous.

Turns out the REAL question was whether Van Halen was ready for us.

The answer -- almost.

On the second night of its first road trip in nearly four years, supporting its new album "A Different Kind of Truth," the iconic hard rock quartet was clearly in start-of-tour mode. Van Halen was tightly rehearsed but also a bit tight on stage, focused on the task at hand and not yet in that smooth, instinctual zone bands aspire to reach. The musicians were still warming to being back on stage and to playing music -- including their first brand new songs with frontman David Lee Roth since 1984 -- in front of a crowd. Even the massive video screen behind the stage took several songs to get into working order.

The result was an hour and 50 minutes that flashed episodic brilliance -- including particularly strong performances of "Mean Street," "Dance the Night Away," "Unchained," "Beautiful Girls," a granite-hard "I'll Wait" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" -- but the overarching sense of a work in progress.

Fortunately, Van Halen had a 22-song set list filled with favorites and its primary weapon -- guitarist Eddie Van Halen -- firing on all cylinders to help keep the Palace faithful on their feet from start to finish. Looking healthy and playing with the nimble precision of the group's albums (which has not always been the case on stage), Van Halen was better than any pyrotechnic special effect, attacking the familiar riffs and solos with a ferocious joy, even if he kept his trademark leaps, which necessitated hip replacement surgery in 1999, to a minimum.

Van Halen had plenty of support from his brother Alex Van Halen's typically thunderous drumming and from son Wolfgang Van Halen on bass and harmony vocals -- and noticeably more confident than he was during the 2007-08 jaunt.

Roth, however, was surprisingly less mobile and animated than usual, seemingly pre-occupied with production details -- he shouted for a change in lighting cues during the group's cover of Roy Orbison's "Oh! Pretty Woman" -- than performing. Sporting four different jackets and a variety of shirts and chapeaus during the show and using a headset microphone, Roth spent most of his time sliding and shimmying pantomime-style around a hardwood floor positioned at the center of the stage, executing only a few of his high kicks and barely venturing onto the ramp that jutted into the audience. He was amiable as always, tossing off bon mots and non-sequiturs -- "The only thing I got on my SATs was tobacco stains," he quipped during "Hot For Teacher" -- but he seemed curiously reserved and not the shimmering Diamond Dave that Van Halen fans know and love.

The songs compensated for some of that, however, with material from "A Different Kind of Truth" carefully woven into the set (the single "Tattoo" and the pop-flavored "The Trouble With Never" fared the best of the four new songs the group played). Van Halen also dug out deep cuts such as "Women in Love" and "Girl Gone Bad" -- albeit too late in the show -- but the established anthems were what the fans came for and got, in abundance, as the group roared through it's version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," "Runnin' With the Devil," "Everybody Wants Some!!," "Somebody Get Me a Doctor," "Panama" and the show-closing "Jump."

One unqualified success on Monday was the experiment of Kool & the Gang's opening set. If some -- actually many -- wondered how the R&B group would fare in front of Van Halen's hard rock crowd, doubts were dispelled quickly with the breezy lite funk of the 11-piece outfit's 50-minute set, which had the T-shirted, beer-drinking, fist-pumpers dancing exuberantly to the likes of hits such as "Jungle Boogie," "Ladies' Night," "Get Down On It" and, of course, "Celebration." A good party band, it seems, will get the party started regardless of genre.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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