Clean. Well-oiled. Smooth. These aren’t words one would have associated with the first coming of the David Lee Roth-fronted Van Halen, but they were the first adjectives that came to mind when the band took to Madison Square Garden’s stage on its much-anticipated reunion tour.
Professionalism is, of course, nothing to be sneezed at, but the members of Van Halen — with the exception of Eddie Van Halen’s bass-playing teenage son, Wolfgang, recruited to replace the unceremoniously dumped Michael Anthony — played their assigned parts so close to the vest this evening as to make a skeptic wonder if they’d been replaced by animatronic doubles.
Roth played up his ringmaster shtick from the opening chords of an undeniably powerful version of “You Really Got Me,” and while there were moments when he recaptured the Borscht Belt-meets Sunset Strip-vivacity of his first stint with the band, the singer’s moves had something of a by-the-book feel to them.
Roth’s singing voice, however, was in top form. Often underrated as a vocalist, he showed off his full range here, segueing easily from crisp pop tenor (the mortar that held together a soaring “Jamie’s Crying”) to lustful faux-blues growl (the linchpin of a gritty “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”).
Eddie Van Halen held up his end of the bargain much of the time, strafing songs like “Atomic Punk” and “Runnin’ With the Devil” with bracing and acrobatic lead lines. The non-stop barrage of technique got in the way on more than one occasion, however, putting an unneeded spin on what should’ve been a straightforward “Hot for Teacher” and sidetracking an otherwise spot-on “Pretty Woman” (on which Roth and Wolfgang traded vocals affably).
The 16-year-old bassist acquitted himself more effectively than naysayers might’ve expected, plowing through the classics with a hereditary flashiness — a marked change from the more brutish, to-the-point playing of his predecessor — particularly on a stinging encore version of “1984.”
While Wolfgang didn’t take a solo turn, both his father and uncle took their customary extended showcases. Those interludes — tailored for diehards in the first place — seemed particularly superfluous at this perf, given the lack of genuine interaction the musicians displayed during the songs that surrounded them. Granted, resurrecting the gang mentality of bygone days would seem a bit disingenuous at this point in Van Halen’s history, but a little bit of sparring would’ve added a few welcome twists to the overly straight path they’re navigating on this trek.