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Van Halen - Calgary, October 26, 2004

Staunch indie cynic though I can be considered, I have always had a soft spot for Van Halen, who for a long time in my youth was my favourite band. I had never had the pleasure of seeing them live, and after the mid-90s fiasco with Sammy Hagar leaving, reuniting and promptly disbanding with David Lee Roth, releasing an album with and disbanding from Gary Cherone and finally leaving Warner Bros, I had serious doubts that I would ever get to see my favourite band in concert. Of course we know that Cherone is now history, and is about as welcome as an ex-wife at an orgy. Five long years passed where music trends changed invariably.
When the word of a Hagar reunion, greatest hits album and subsequent tour hit my ears, I was ecstatic. When it was confirmed that they would visit the big-show-deprived hole of Calgary, I was through the roof and immediately bought tickets with my concert buddy Ken. We ended up with third row tickets in the seat directly across the stage. October 26 would be our salvation and badly needed Van Halen fix. I got my classic Balance shirt ready for the wearing.

The entire tour and merchandising smells of money (T-shirts for 45 bucks minimum? Oh yeah), but the boys made up for it with a spirited performance that erased any doubts we might have had. If the sound wasn’t always pristine, Sammy, Alex, Mike and Eddie made up for it with energy and showmanship. We didn’t catch the opening band, and I only remember they’re called Rose Hill Drive because Calgary has a Nose Hill Drive which got a few people laughing. I’m sure they were all right.

Jump / Runaround / Humans Being / Up For Breakfast / Michael Anthony Solo / Somebody Get Me A Doctor / Poundcake / It's About Time / Alex Van Halen Solo / Top Of The World / Unchained / Why Can't This Be Love / Eagles Fly / I Can't Drive 55 / The Seventh Seal / Best Of Both Worlds / Hot For Teacher (Intro) / Eddie Van Halen Solo / Dreams / Ain't Talkin' Bout Love / Right Now // You Really Got Me / Panama // When It's Love
The lights dimmed, and we heard a distant rumble of drums and guitar: Eddie and Alex warming up! The crowd was starting their yelling and when the lights came on and that immediately recognizable riff from “Jump” started, the audience was in a frenzy. The band was full-on, all smiles, with Eddie jumping all over the stage, showing off his new hip. Sammy looked funny with his long mane tied up under a black toque and dark glasses on, an out-of-place hip-hopper, while Eddie wore salmon-colored flood pants and no shirt. Alex was half-naked as always and Mike was wearing a sleeve-less muscle shirt. Fashion moguls they aren’t but they were rocking.
After the initial hit, Eddie launched into the riff from 1991’s “Runaround”, a classic song that kept the energy going high. In the fury of the song’s outro, Eddie broke his high D-string, yet still managed to play a searing lick that had Sammy recognizing his skills even “with only five strings” and the crowd roared its appreciation. This broken string however, would lead to a slight delay, and the night’s first misstep, an out of tune and lacklustre “Humans Being” from the Twister soundtrack. I was never a huge fan of this song and it didn’t come off good this night. Sammy finally acknowledged the crowd saying they left Edmonton (three hours away) the night before so he could have all day in Calgary. This segued into the first of two new tracks “Up for Breakfast”, a sexual metaphor when you hear the chorus. It’s not a particular fave of mine, but it came off energetic and anthemic live.
Let the wanking begin! I was dreading Mike’s solo, and I was proven right, as it was a classic Anthony bass solo: him pounding his bass and creating rib-crushing roars. He stood against his deck, but it did nothing and looked a little stupid. Part way through he pulled out a small Jack Daniels, tossed it into the crowd and a roadie brought out a full size just for him to swig. Okay. However, this was a perfect segue into “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, a classic track from 1979 which has become Mike’s song to sing live. He handled it nicely, and it showed off the voice that had to support Sammy on several choruses. The second new song “It’s About Time” followed. This is the strongest of the three new songs they recorded, and it was well-played, huge chorus.
Alex’s solo was way better than I thought, much more technical and structured than his usual bashing, and it seemed much shorter than the live album one. He took a lengthy curtain call at the end, giving a thumbs up and grinning all the way. Eddie, palm-muting the intro for maximum effect, played “Top of the World” with finesse and dynamics. Sammy sang this song on a riser right in front of the video screen, some 20 feet above stage, and the crowd loved it, singing the chorus nice and loud. “Unchained”, the biggest hit off 1981’s brutally under appreciated Fair Warning gathered an enormous roar and was played without the studio conversation bridge, for obvious reasons. If the band heard the crowd’s reaction to this song, maybe they could play some others off that album. They continued the variety, playing “Why Can’t This Be Love”, Sammy’s first hit with the band.
Sammy took his perquisite solo, noodling on the guitar with surprising skill and playing “Eagles Fly”, a song he introduced as being written about being born. Corny, but it was played well and the crowd ate it up. However, they really went wild when he played two verses of “I Can’t Drive 55” which prompted a huge sing-a-long. Maybe he has some promise as a solo artist…
A strange hum was heard through the concert bowl, and most people didn’t realize it was a Gregorian chant. More importantly, they didn’t recognize it was the intro to “The Seventh Seal”, the overlooked rocker and lead track from 1995’s Balance. I of course knew that song very well, and enjoyed the performance very much. Perhaps they will dig a little deeper into their catalogue in the future. ‘Best of Both Worlds” followed and was the typical stadium rocker with huge chorus that people really got into.
Next was a complete surprise, or at least it would have been: “Hot for Teacher”! Of course, with only Eddie and Alex apparent on stage, it wasn’t meant to be the full-band version. After the intro was played, Eddie stepped up to the mic and said he would fuck around for a little, don’t mind him. Eddie is Eddie, and fuck around he did. For 20 minutes he melted spines and popped eyes with his guitar antics. He played the stunning intro to “Women in Love” one of my favourites, and “Cathedral” in the mix. He writhed on the floor for a couple of minutes; it wasn’t the most compelling. However, he ended with a blazing “Eruption” that the people went psycho for, and chants of “Eddie! Eddie!” soon filled the arena. It was a stunning high point of the concert, and the fans screamed for several minutes.
The band closed out their main set with three classics: “Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Right Now”. All three got a huge response, and were all played with fire, except “Right Now” which was surprisingly lacklustre. I guess the band figured most people would be reading the updated slogans on the screens (ex. “Right now the Yankees are playing golf”, the picture of Bush under “Nothing is more expensive than regret”), and ran through it a little half-assed. During “Love”, Sammy jumped into the crowd during the bridge and sang it while going around and getting hugs from everyone who pushed their way to him. Following “Right Now” they stood on stage waving and enticing the fans for a couple of minutes before heading off-stage.
With the lights out and the fans screaming themselves hoarse, the band returned to play a barnstorming version of “You Really Got Me”. It’s amazing how well the Kinks translate into such an environment; everyone should check their music out. The crowd sang along to every word, and went even wilder (if possible) when “Panama” began. Always a Van Halen live favourite, it was given a great treatment here, and Sammy even let the fans sing the bridge, handing the mic and smiling all the way, even telling them to sing louder (they obviously hadn’t handled a lot of mics before) and telling the fans how well they sang. Well, he said, “you guys are fucking awesome” but same difference. Another band bow and another encore followed. This time, they played “When It’s Love” and had the fans chant along at the end, Sammy introducing the band over the outro to deafening screams. When the song ended, the band lingered on stage, waving and laughing for several minutes and the fans didn’t mind one bit. I sure didn’t.

Overall, it was a fantastic night. While there is a certain corporate intention behind the whole tour, I really don’t care if they play for the money. The band was loose and clearly having a ton of fun being stage, playing such a great catalogue to appreciative fans. Sammy ran around with boundless energy, signing everything thrown to him, and wearing several articles of clothing as well (he wore a Canadian flag around his waist from the second song until about four song later, and a Calgary Flames jersey bearing the legend “Red Rocker” got the biggest response of the night). Eddie was his classic grinning self through the whole show and was very limber considering the troubles he has underwent the last several years. Although I could say more about his solo, the rest of Mike’s night was filled with tremendous playing and killer (read: hilarious) high squeals on the backing vocals, and Alex’s playing was typically fierce and steady. It was also the first concert with seats where the majority of the crowd was standing the whole time that I’ve been to. The fans were great, the band was great, and the overall concert experience was a definite high. Here’s hoping they release a proper CD (with hopefully good songs) and come by here again. Thanks guys, it was a great time!