Van Halen and Kool and the Gang bring the party to First Niagara Center (2012)


My dear boy, do you ask a fish how it swims? Or a bird how it flies?  No sirree, you don’t.  They do it because they were born to do it.” – Bill, the candy store owner, in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

I quote Mel Stuart’s 1971 children’s classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” because, if last night’s ostentatious 22-song set from Van Halen at First Niagara Center showed us anything, it’s that Eddie Van Halen was born to play the axe at screeching volume.

From the initial punch of “You Really Got Me,” it was clear that we were witnessing a new Eddie, a revitalized legend rising from the ashes of substance abuse to reclaim the glory that comes with being a guitar god.

As always, his right hand did the talking, and the capacity crowd soaked up every incendiary riff he threw at them.  Staples such as “Unchained,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” crackled with every bit of Southern California ribaldry we expect from the group who lit up the Starwood during the late 1970s.

Given that this tour marks the first time since 1985 that the band has toured with original vocalist David Lee Roth, the expectations are certainly high, but all four members brought their A-game to Buffalo.

“Diamond” Dave pranced across the stage like a modern-day Vaudevillian whose sole purpose was to entertain to no end and he was simply a blast to watch.  Whether it was twirling a baton or giving the crowd a 12-second glimpse of his Mexican dancing skills, the guy still knows how to give ‘em hell across the board.

Of course, we’re bound to hear complaints regarding his inability to yowl as if it were 1978, but such a criticism is, in my opinion, unfair. He’s 57 and his vocal range can’t be expected to remain the same forever, so his performance last night was killer in every aspect. If you’re keen wasting  breath regarding how he doesn’t sound like he used to, I have news for you.  He doesn’t. Nor should he, because this is a new era and the guys are too busy promoting a supreme new album to be bothered with detractors.

Speaking of “A Different Kind of Truth,” tracks such as “She’s the Woman,” “China Town,” and “The Trouble With Never” really came alive on stage, and even the first single “Tattoo” managed to transcend its radio-friendly charm to become quite engaging.

With Wolfgang Van Halen finally settling into his duties on bass, the 2012 version of Van Halen feels right on every level, because the egos have been shoved aside and they appear to be enjoying each other’s company once again.

Say what you will about the departure of Michael Anthony, but he’s missed less and less every time they set foot on stage.  Wolfgang and Alex Van Halen form a mighty rhythm section that anchors the ship at every turn, while rounding out a fully realized group in the process.

Both the guitar and drum solos were mouth-wateringly awesome in their own way, and even Dave’s soliloquy about his beloved dogs before “Ice Cream Man” was enough to keep the gathered on their feet.

Having funk outfit Kool and the Gang open the show with party anthems such as “Ladies Night,” “Get Down on It,” and “Celebration” was an interesting choice, but one that ultimately set the tone for an evening predicated on grandiose entertainment.

The fact that Roth himself hand-picked them to be the warm-up act shows his affinity for the party atmosphere, and, needless to say, Buffalo was ready to answer the call.

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