CLEVELAND -- It begins as a Van Halen concert should, with a shirtless Eddie Van Halen, post-rehab toned with a tightly cropped coif, blasting a guitar salutation to the crowd at the Quicken Loans Arena before ducking behind a curtain to join the band in its rendition of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me."
"How we doin' so far?" frontman David Lee Roth asks between verses. Just minutes into the show, the response is overwhelmingly affirmative.
That's no surprise, of course. This is a show rock fans have waited more than two decades to see, and the dramatic mechanics of putting it together just piqued that much more interest.
It's Van Halen's first tour with founding singer Roth since his acrimonious departure in 1984, shortly after the group's "Jump" to the top of the Billboard charts. It's also the first time we've seen Van Halen in the flesh since a short 'n' bittersweet reunion tour with Roth's replacement, Sammy Hagar, in 2004.
But it hasn't come easily. Firstly, it's not a return of the entire original lineup; bassist Michael Anthony has been ousted, replaced by Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie's 16-year-old son with his ex-wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli. The jaunt was also supposed to take place in the summer but was derailed, along with the group's appearance at its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in March, when Eddie went into rehab.
Despite all that, however, this version of Van Halen -- the fourth in the band's 33-year history -- is in fit, fighting form, delivering a two-hour plus show whose 23 songs draw from the five albums it recorded with Roth. There are plenty of hits ("Jump," "Jamie's Cryin'," "Runnin' With the Devil," "Dance the Night Away") and some surprises plumbed from deep in the catalog, such as "I'm the One," "Romeo Delight," "Mean Street" and "Little Dreamer." And while the current show is celebrating the past, there seems to be an eye towards the future as well.
"This is not a reunion; this is a new band," Roth, 52, declared at an August press conference announcing the tour. "This is a revision, with hits that you're so familiar with...but the ambition has nothing to do with old history. This is not like the Police; the idea is that this will continue on and on and on...
"Usually when a band comes back like us, it's rockers with walkers, and this is everything but. Meet us in the future, not the pasture."
"Just know this," Eddie Van Halen, 52, chimed in, "We are a band, and we're gonna continue. It's a whole new beginning."
Though the flamboyant and outspoken Roth has long pronounced his return to Van Halen "inevitable," it's been a struggle; he even joked in August that "this is the press conference that you probably never thought you would see happen, certainly not while we were all young, skinny and good-looking." He and the rest of the band exchanged harsh words through the media after his initial departure, while the group was enjoying even greater commercial success with Hagar.
And an attempted reunion in 1996 yielded a pair of new songs for a best-of set but had no long-term traction.
Now, however, Roth -- who served briefly as a replacement for syndicated disc jockey Howard Stern early last year -- and Eddie Van Halen refer to each other as "brother," vowing to keep egos and temperaments in check to make nice in front of arenas full of fans.
"It feels completely natural," Roth said. "Strangely enough, after this many summers in, I myself am certainly more aware of it than ever of how valuable this band is to me and my history, of how valuable it is probably to the neighborhood, to the communities that this music appeals to.
"We really have re-formed this team like the brother team it never was before."
The Anthony issue is still a sticking point, however.
The Van Halens -- Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex -- attempted to oust him prior to the 2004 tour before Hagar intervened. But after Hagar and Anthony, who were the only Van Halen members to attend the Rock Hall induction, began touring as the Other Half, the bassist was quickly written out of the Van Halen's future endeavors.
At its web site, the group even replaced his photo on the 1978 debut album's cover with an image of Wolfgang Van Halen until fan outcry forced a reversal.
A disappointed Anthony says now that Eddie Van Halen "felt I wasn't an integral part (of the band)...unless it was some kind of power play Eddie was trying to pull on me." Little mention was made of Anthony at the press conference, when Roth simply noted that "Michael Anthony is part of this band's history."
But Hagar, who's touring again with Anthony this fall, has also taken the group to task for its decision.
"Michael Anthony is the guy who's never done anything wrong in Van Halen from day one," Hagar says, "the only guy in the band who's never caused trouble. This guy's been the guy that's been the easiest going guy, that did whatever you told him. I don't get it. There's a missing link there somewhere."
The cherub-faced Wolfgang, who bears a striking resemblance to his mother, certainly holds his own onstage in Cleveland, deftly playing his bass parts and providing backing vocals while his father beams with paternal pride. The teen, who the rest of the group credits with picking the set list, even gets to throw Roth a scripted zinger at one point, answering one too many inappropriate sexual innuendoes for a teenager by quipping "Dave...gimme a break," to the roar of the crowd.
Roth called the younger Van Halen "amazing" at the press conference, but Hagar worries that it may be too much too soon for the youth.
"Wolfie's a great guy," Hagar says. "I would love to see Eddie and Alex get behind Wolfie...and help him launch a career the way a lot of people have done for their children. I don't think that's the way Van Halen should end up, bringing (in) a (16)-year-old kid.
"That's a lot of pressure for Wolfie. Van Halen's got way too much history to have that put on him."
That will certainly be determined by Dec. 30, when the Van Halen tour wraps up in Las Vegas. No specific future plans have been announced yet, but at this point, optimism abounds.
"It's incredible to me, man," Eddie Van Halen said in August. "I'm very excited to be making music with my son, my brother, my new brother. It is totally blowing our minds. It's better than it's ever been."
The current lineup of Van Halen is the fifth in the group's 33-year-history. It's lineups over the years have included:
Van Halen I (1974-84): Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen II (1985-96): Anthony, Sammy Hager, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen III (1996): Anthony, Mitch Malloy, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen IV (1996-99): Anthony, Gary Cherone, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen II-B (2004-2005): Anthony, Hagar, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen V (2007-?): Roth, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen, Wolfgang Van Halen
Van Halen and Ky-Mani Marley perform at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 20) at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $79.50 and $49.50. Call (313) 471-6606 or visit www.olympianentertainment.com. They perform again at 7:30 p.m. Monday (Oct. 22) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are also $79.50 and $49.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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