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©AP / Eddie Van Halen
© AP / Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen Live in Concert: Full Bug

The rejuvenated hard-rock shredders triumph in Tacoma

By Michael Shilling
Special to MSN Music

In a world of shiny corporate-named arenas with 80 kinds of free-range artisanal junk food, it's refreshing to come to the Tacoma Dome. It's not shiny. It's not artisanal. It's basically a giant hatbox that smells like hot dogs and spilled beer, a no-frills venue emblematic of the working-class town just south of Seattle in which it is situated. In other words, it's a perfect place to see Van Halen do what seemed impossible, given their age, ailments and history of discord: slay.

Now that isn't to say that Van Halen these days isn't a little, well, weird. The source of this weirdness is the disjoint between the ability of David Lee Roth and everyone else. For example, when the band hit the stage and broke into "Unchained," Diamond Dave appeared to be more than a little stiff. He looked kind of like he'd just been fitted with a new back brace, and he wasn't doing a lot of singing. Yelping, yes. Yipping, for sure. But not singing. Meanwhile, the Van Halens -- Eddie, Alex and Eddie's 21-year-old son Wolfgang -- were utterly blistering. Roth knew it, too, and he looked around with the smile of a comedian whose jokes are going nowhere.

That back brace must have loosened up, though, because after the tentative shuffle-puck routine of the initial numbers, Roth found what's left of his voice and began a-struttin' in ways that echoed the amateur-ninja spasmodio ethos for which he was so well-known in his '80s prime. The expressions of "oh my goodness" and "lordy, lordy loo" went from shtick to sincere as he fed off the energy of the 20,000 -plus aging heshers in the Tacoma Dome, many of whom had brought their children. At one point, Roth monologued about the family atmosphere, and said something to the effect of Van Halen + lots of beer = all these children. It was funnier and lewder than that. Funny and lewd is his sweet spot.

More: Van Halen plays a NYC club date

The band blew through a wide swath of their catalogue. There were the songs from their new record, "A Different Kind of Truth," and tracks such as "Tattoo" and "That's the Problem With Never" stood in decent stead. But the meat of the show -- standards like "Runnin' With the Devil," "Dance the Night Away" and "Everybody Wants Some," as well as deep cuts such as "Hear About It Later," off "Fair Warning" -- just thundered through the hall, and were performed with a genuinely jaw-dropping tightness. The backup singing by Eddie and Wolfgang -- such singing has always been Van Halen's not-so-secret weapon -- was plenty more than serviceable, making up in volume what it might have lacked in pitch (not that you could really tell or that it really mattered -- it's the Tacoma Dome).

Another pleasant surprise was the musical evolution of Wolfgang. The only son of EVH and actress Valerie Bertinelli, he's really come into his own as a musician compared to his tentative maiden voyage in 2007 as the replacement of still-missed Michael Anthony. On first glance, he looks like some random kid who won a "Play a show with Van Halen!" contest, and then he hits the frets: Well, let's just say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Of course, there's also something sweet about watching the father-and-son dynamic, which built on the we-are-family vibe in the crowd.

And then there's Eddie. He's still the best rock guitar player alive. Watching him joyfully dance with his own brilliance and in turn effortlessly anchor the show is worth the price of admission. He was a relaxed and cool conductor of the rest of the group, and even seemed to be enjoying DLR's often incomprehensible verbal shenanigans. The man is a marvel. And yes, I'm gushing. If not for EVH, then for whom?

As far as props, a huge video screen behind the stage served a number of purposes, useful and curious. The useful part was the enlarged live footage of the band for those in the nosebleed seats. The curious part was the constant reminder that Van Halen has a new album out and you can get it at Best Buy. Also curious was the footage of Diamond Dave and his sheepdogs herding goats, which served as backing for Roth, picking at an acoustic guitar onstage -- alone onstage -- telling the crowd how much he loves his dogs. It was cute, to a degree, but mostly it felt like a concession he demanded of the rest of the group. That he went from Sheepdogs 101 into "Ice Cream Man" with a nonsensical segue only provided more of a sense of this shoehorning of ego and music.

But that was just a lovable oddity in an otherwise truly impressive night. With their performance, VH didn't just demonstrate that they'd played a foundational role in creating heavy music -- they showed that they were still at the forefront of shaping it.

Another very different breed of '70s stalwarts Kool & the Gang, spent almost an hour warming up the crowd, playing legendary dance-pop tracks like "Get Down on It," "Jungle Boogie" and "Celebration" like they were the headliners. It took the Harley-heavy crowd a little while to get into it -- such a pairing of acts is not the most intuitive of show bills -- but by the time the group broke into "Ladies Night," the whole arena was feelin' right.

Michael Shilling is a recovering rock musician and the author of "Rock Bottom," a novel. He lives in Seattle, where he is a teacher, writer and editor.

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