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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Rock in the key of Van Halen

August 18, 2004|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

Even before the lights went down Monday at the Arrowhead Pond, he occupied the room, sending up a squall of electric guitar from offstage that was raw and totally shocking. A hot and inspired Eddie Van Halen came to the arena with the band that bears his surname and reinterpreted even the group's own hits with his urgent slashing, leaving the whole notion of rote concert performance in smoking ruins.

Coming nine years after the band last toured with frontman Sammy Hagar, this was more than a reunion concert. Eddie Van Halen, shirtless and greyhound-thin at 49, deftly reclaimed the guitar-hero status -- and the big, mainstream rock -- that he seemed to have left behind the last decade.

From the opening keyboard chords to "Jump," Van Halen started laying out complex patterns of touch-notes, power chords, hammered-on arpeggios and impossible blues runs that only grew more loose, indulgent, unironic and gorgeous as the two-hour-plus show built. If rock music is defined by the electric guitar, then this was an experience beyond rock. His smile grew more mischievous, and the packed crowd of 15,000 grew louder as it became obvious that they were witnessing a display of sweat-soaked mastery.

The quartet sounded best when it dipped into its meaner, street-savvy sound, as on "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," and the band seemed to relish these hard-rockers the most. Unfortunately, Hagar still seems miscast on these songs, which need the dark Hollywood decadence of his predecessor, David Lee Roth. Hagar got huge audience response for his more ballad-like moments, but the energy low point came during his solo turn.

But the charisma pouring off guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his brother, frenetic drummer Alex, was a tough act to follow. Eddie turned his own solo into a 10-minute deconstruction of his instrumental "Eruption," which was interrupted only when his 13-year-old son, Wolfgang, appeared with a guitar to duet on a chunk of melody named after the boy's birthday, "3-16."

Even through this potentially sappy moment, Eddie Van Halen continued to peel off shrieks and guttural lowing from his guitar, not letting a scrap of conventionality sneak in. These sounds should have been reminding us what rock once meant, but somehow now it seems as if it never went away.

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