It was up in the air for a while, whether David Lee Roth was going to be ready for Tuesday’s Van Halen concert at Darien Lake. The band canceled Sunday’s show in Pennsylvania, and announced no intention of rescheduling. The reason was Roth’s flu, and a doctor’s recommendation to give the voice a break for a bit. The internet, which has neither conscience nor need to cite sources, suggested that the band was fighting again, and that poor ticket sales had urged the band to kill the show and run.
But on Tuesday, in lousy weather and with a reported flu still haunting him, Roth one-upped his 2014 performance at First Niagara Center rather handily, before a crowd that filled the entire arena and a bit more than half of the lawn.
Gallery: Van Halen performs at Darien Lake
Van Halen arrived at Darien loaded for bear. In an incredibly tight performance spanning the entirety of the band’s tenure with Roth, the group reminded us why we considered them one of the most significant guitar-based bands ever. Roth wasn’t what he once was, but he was calm most of the time, and on point.
What’s different about the band? Attention to harmony vocals, always a strength that set Van Halen apart from its hard rock peers, had an awful lot to do with it. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his son Wolfgang Van Halen – who replaced original bassist/vocalist Michael Anthony several years back, much to annoyance of old school Van Halen fans – sang such powerful and in-tune vocal harmonies on Tuesday that Roth’s occasional wanderings away from the script didn’t really matter much.
Roth, to his immense credit, toned down his tendency toward incredible acrobatics – the guy is still in incredible shape, and has always been eager to prove it – and sang in a lower key much of the time, allowing his band mates to do the heavy lifting when it came to the big hooks that made Van Halen the finest group to ever marry hard and heavy rock to legitimate pop smarts. Yes, we were all there to hear Eddie Van Halen kill it – he did – but those songs were always so smart, so able to marry an Earth Wind & Fire-style hook to a massive hard rock riff, that it has always also been about the band, even if we didn’t realize it.
The set list should’ve disappointed no one. Opening with a deep cut was smart – “Light Up the Sky” let everyone know that the band was here to deliver the goods. “Running With the Devil,” “Romeo Delight,” and “ Everybody Wants Some” followed, and by that point, it seemed that the crowd had accepted Roth’s role as more MC of the proceedings, than line-by-line singer of the songs. Sure, it wasn’t what it once was, but it was what it was, and what it was kicked butt.
So many Van Halen fans have decried Eddie’s choice to fire bassist Anthony and replace him with his son, Wolfgang. Anthony’s harmony vocals were a major part of the Van Halen sound from the beginning, but truth be told, the young Wolfgang had no trouble handling Anthony’s parts, proved himself to be a more inventive bassist than his predecessor, and absolutely nailed the vocal harmonies with his father, whether the tune was the Latin-flavored “Dance the Night Away,” or the pop-inflected “I’ll Wait.”
Oh, and that guitar player wasn’t so bad either. In fact, the Van Halen namesake offered the finest display of his immense and groundbreaking talent. Hearing Eddie play with his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, is pretty much the reason you go to a Van Halen show. And on that front, man, we were given much more than enough.