Category Archives: Musical Musings

Wednesday Night at the Rock Show

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daveeddievancouver.jpgAs a bit of a follow up to my original post on the reunited Van Halen, I offer some remarks and observations on the recent Vancouver, BC, stop on their current tour, and the energy that surrounded it.

First off, my trip over from the island: BCFerries was PACKED (which it usually isn’t on a Wednesday morning crossing, especially not one in a month not named July or August). The whole boat (many hundreds of people) were going to the show that night, and clearly excited by it. Outside on the decks, it was all smoke of various aromas and classic Halen on someone’s portable player. It was often a rough and motley looking group,  grizzled looking men in their 40s (not a pleasant sight), already corked at 11am–you get the idea. Also, whole clusters of guys making an event out of it, a group all wearing bright orange t-shirts they’ve commissioned (I think the bright orange ones must be cheap) with “What’s better than partying with Jesus? Seeing Van Halen,” and more of that kind of thing.

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But really, all ages. Had next to me on the bus a mother in her 40s accompanying her 15 year old son, elsewhere a dad in his late 30s going to the show with his 11 year old son. So you had all sorts. But mostly men in their 30s and 40s–no surprise there.

Concert reviewer in the Vancouver Sun the next day: unimpressed. My review of the reviewer: weak. Cliched jabs at testosterone, “weathered” skin, “by-gone eras”, complaining about the quality of the sound from her “press box,” reluctant to move down to “sit among the fans,” like the riff-raff that we apparently are. Like seriously–what are you doing there? She noted that on the way in she saw a beer bottle flying overhead, seemingly thrown from an overpass beside the arena. Well, no one wants to get cracked over the head with the likes of that, but, frankly, it’s a rock show: enjoy it! Revel in the atmosphere and chaos. It is rockn’roll, afterall. What’s the Sun doing sending an a-feared square to review a hard rock concert, anyway?

With the very first note of the opening song, You Really Got Me, right on queue, emanating from somewhere unknown amidst the intoxicating ether of the darkened arena, a substantial waft of BC’s Best hit my nostrils. That smell, mingled with that belonging to second-rate beer, was to never leave anyone far behind on this night.

As for the music, well, in short, they delivered the goods. It was a flawless show, except for Dave’s early stumble down the steps from the main stage to the loop branching off into the crowd (nice recovery, tho’). They stuck strickly to the classics of the Dave years–absolutely no Sammy tunes allowed. All the classics that you would hope to hear were played, along with a handful of less radio-frequented gems.

As for the crowd, well, a beer in every hand. I’ve seen VH before, The Who, Stones, Floyd, etc.–never seen so many beers. People missing two or three classic songs to go get another one and a bathroom break.

40 year old air-guitarists extraordinaires, come to worship at the altar (remember the orange “partying with Jesus” shirts?). Kind of sad or amusing, depending on your point of view. I mean, I’m for people indulging themselves (hey, I went to this dinosaur concert myself, afterall), but somehow the sight of thousands of bespectacled nerds air-guitaring with frantic and furious frenzy, mouths a-droolin’ and tongues a-wagglin’, was somehow just a little too much for this old cat. And, about the air-guitaring, don’t forget about what I said about a beer in every hand–it wasn’t pretty. Smelly in a lingering way, too, as my post-concert ale-encrusted vest can attest to.

The players were all on form. Eddie was great, of course. You can’t be that talented and obssessed with the guitar and fail. New bassist Wolfgang was good enough, no problem there. (The original bassist, Michael Anthony, was no great shakes on the instrument–he was mainly important for the sound he contributed as the band’s main backup singer.) Wolfgang was noticably the weakest presence on stage, but for the most part he was just fine, filling in on backup vocals admirably (twice only, and briefly at that, I cringed slightly at the sound of his 16 year old vocal chords showing through).

Music highlights:

Alex’s drum solo was very, very good. It’s always nice being able to appreciate a master craftsman at work. He seemed to enjoy himself during it, too. I think this portion of the show, which happened about a third the way in, marked a transition from an early phase of the concert in which the band was going through the motions in a workman-like fashion, working through the early show butterflies, to a more energized rest of show in which the players loosened up and started enjoying themselves a bit.

In lieu of the knife dancing of yore, Dave’s solo bit on this night amounted to an extended storytime session leading into Ice Cream Man. I would say that this was my personal highlight, as this kind of thing spotlights what Dave does best: play the role of raconteur with wit and humour (not to mention that this is one of my personal VH faves). Also, in this instance, it reminds us that he was so crucial to the VH classics, that his personality is so intertwined and inseparable with what made the band great.

Eddie’s solo was the intended centrepiece of the show. It was good, no doubt, but somehow it failed to inspire me. I think the sound could have been better.

The Jump encore included lights meant to dazzle, bright multi-coloured confetti falling from the sky, all to the joyous, melodic tune of the song’s pre-recorded synths (Eddie tends to prefer playing and pre-recording the synth bits himself for use during the show rather than have someone not in the band up on stage playing the keyboard bits live). Van Halen playing Jump for you in person can have no other effect than to leave you smiling.

Strange bit, right at the end of the show: the band had finished the encore, had bowed, waved, bowed and waved again, and were literally heading off when a kid about 18 or so came running onto stage, first having his legs pulled out from under him by a security guy on the edge of stage, then got up, tried to high five one of the band members, and kept running, knowing he was dead meat as soon as one of the multiple security guys caught him. Unbenownst to the kid, though, as he continued running off the stage, Eddie was PISSED!, and chasing and yelling after him, following him off the stage. The kid completely tripped off the stage, doing a major face plant, falling a handful of feet and then he was out of sight for the majority of the audience down at the side of the stage, with Eddie still chasing him, along with the aforementioned security. At this point, I can only guess what happened, whether Eddie pounded him, or the security did, or what. But an odd last moment of an otherwise flawless show. Hey, it’s rockn’roll.

For me, the most interesting aspect to the whole show was watching the group dynamics of the bandmembers on stage. Given the amount of bad blood between assorted bandmembers in the past, I was curious whether they could get over it enough to put on a vibrant show. For instance, Dave once said “Without a guitar in his hands, Eddie Van Halen’s a cruddy human being.” Lots of that kind of thing on all sides. (As an aside, oddly enough, the insults and in-fighting were basically started and hurled most vehemently and often by Dave’s replacement, the mediocre Sammy Hagar, which I always thought was weak: it’s pretty puny for a cliche like Hagar to knock someone who’s voice and screams are indelibly linked to dozens of rock classics now that he, Hagar, is firmly ensconced in the cozy bosom of the Van Halen brand.) So, how did they interact with one another on stage?  Now, they are performers afterall, so we must be careful reading too much into their behaviour on stage. However, this is what I noticed: 

Wolfgang at one point early on rolling his eyes in the direction of his dad after Dave shared a mike with him. Have to wonder how Dave’s been contextualised to Wolfgang by his dad and uncle coming into this reunion after such bad blood over the years.

Dave was very gracious throughout, particularly to Eddie. I imagine Dave feels this is the most visible area of rift to the fans, and probably the most important one for him to repair if he is to continue on in the band. The last time I saw Dave and Eddie on the same stage, it was April 1984, shortly before Dave left the band. Then, the two rarely, if at all, interacted on stage, other than Eddie coming forward at the prescribed time to bend over so Dave could do a summersault over him, before going back to his corner of the stage for the rest of the show. The interaction on the next tour between Eddie and Sammy was very noticably different in its enthusiasm and frequency. This time around, Dave often approached Eddie and indulged in the enjoyment of watching him play, hugging him several times, and generally never really straying too far away from the band into Daveland.

Generally, Eddie seemed ho-hum to Dave’s advances, though he might have been too busy concentrating on playing the right notes on his guitar. Once Eddie did playfully approach Dave and rested his head down on Dave’s stomach and noodled for a bit, leaving Dave frankly a bit surprised, not knowing how to react, a feeling he conveyed to the audience with a look of “Can you believe this? Eddie’s rubbing his head in my belly. He’s never done that!”

Eddie and son Wolfgang didn’t seem to interact too much, though there was a moment when they did riff off one another that Eddie seemed to enjoy.

I also noticed that at no time did Dave and drummer Alex Van Halen so much as look at one another, let alone touch. They were always at opposite ends while the band did the obligatory joining of hands and bowing en masse at the end of the show. I was interested in this after reading a number of years ago Eddie saying Dave never liked his brother for some reason or another that I can no longer remember.

I would have to guess, though, that there would be mutual respect all around fairly quickly if most shows on the tour go as well as this one. Everyone was a pro, licks and chops down pat and in good working form. Three seasoned pros and one 16 year old living every 16 year old’s rockn’roll dream delivering the goods to thousands of deliriously happy rockers. Not bad.

Now, if I can only persuade Mountain Equipment Co-op to exchange my vest, it’ll all have been worth it.

Memories of SARStock

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As we turn towards the darker and colder months of our yearly cycle, I find myself reminiscing of warm and bright days past. One of the hottest, out in the sun all day, was at the all-day rock festival known as SARStock…. 

Toronto, Summer ’03. Half a million deep sea of souls. Former airfield.  11 hours. Scorching sun. Rolling Stones, AC/DC, et al. Me & S skipping a day of grad school to mingle with the masses.

People everywhere, never ending, many of them with an a-feared look on their faces, worried they might not survive sharing a space with half a million people. Doesn’t happen every day. 

But wanting to enjoy it, tossing your cameras up to firefighters on top of towers taking pics for you of the masses stretching on the horizon forever.

Vast fields of Port-a-potties layed out according to current urban sprawl designs.

Beer gardens: lots and lots and lots of really drunk people. Once you’ve waited to get in, you lost your place if you left to, say, relieve yourself. So, women peeing under the plastic tables for privacy, a man peeing against the side of a car, thinking he was hidden, not realising that S and I were lounging in the field in plain view 30 yards behind him, too drunk to remember to look behind himself when scouting out a “hidden” spot to relieve himself.

S reflecting on how great it is to be living in a country, Canada, where half a million people can come to an event like this and still be peaceful. Meanwhile, I’m watching as, about 40 yards behind her, two guys brawling like the drunken bozos they were, one finally kicking the crap out of the other, lying on the ground, too drunk to really notice or care.

A woman who had made her way to the top of a hosing station, about twelve feet off the ground, getting into the festivities with her own brand of stardom: eliciting drunken, lascivious howls from the masses around her as she stipteased them, before finally taking it all off to the whooping delight of all (males) around.

One of the entry points to the concert site, replete with turnstyles and minimum wage help checking every napsack coming in, resulting in thousands of would be spectators/participants standing in full sun for hours to get in, even though the show had long since started. Newsflash for organizers: it’s an all-day event during summertime in Toronto–ie, the fans would of course come with a day’s supplies in napsacks on what would predictably be very, very hot. Needless to say, the thousands of people standing for a few hours in the full July sun waiting “in line” (it was chaos) to get in were kept waiting as every bag was checked for…what? After way too long, some sensible supervisor made his/her way over to this portion of the festival site and, performing good damage control, made the right call to stop with the baggage checks and just let people through. In very short order, all made it into the show, albeit having missed a few acts while getting sunburnt and, presumably for some, peeing in their pants while waiting in the midst of hordes standing cheek by jowl in a field.

Lining up for water bottles (did I mention it was hot that day?) – Long line ups of people with empty bottles lining up for great lengths to get a chance at refilling their bottles with water out of a spigot of sorts protruding out of a huge water tanker/truck thingy. S & I innocently strolling by as a woman reached out for our bottles, offering to fill them for us. We quickly assessed the situation, passed over our bottles, and she, in some form of solidarity with us as fellow members of the sea of people, kindly filled them up and we were on our way with full replenishment of water. As we kept walking, we saw that we had just unwittingly jumped the queue, which kept getting longer the farther we walked. The line went on and on, unlucky, trusting folks just waiting for their fair turn to come, not moving, unaware that all sorts of people were jumping the line in the free-for-all that was taking place up at the hose/spout at the front of the line.

The food “section”–it was a runway lined with vendors–dominated by stalls selling all manner of beef products, the Albertan government jumping on the woe-is-me bandwagon (the whole SARStock spectacle was conceived by some self-serving Toronto-area politicians as a promotional, “support Toronto” event intending to diminish concern/fear from would-be tourists to the area about the recent spate of SARS deaths in the city, and drumming up a few feel-good votes in the process). The Canadian cattle industry, primarily located in Alberta, was being hit hard by cattle embargoes over Mad-Cow concerns in their main market, the US. So Alberta Premier Ralphy-babes Kline saw an opportunity to tag along with his own sorry story of wretchedness, and came flogging pulled-beef lunches to the masses, showing it was safe both to eat Alberta beef, and to do it in Toronto. A mile of beef food product stalls. Not a hot dog in sight (pork).

The music was mostly routine for us, as the real show that day was sharing life with 500,000 people. Except for the last two acts, AC/DC and the Stones. It was AC/DC’s day hands-down, in terms of a battle-of-the-bands point of view. They had the immense benefit of coming on just as the sun was setting, thus a) performing as the day was starting to cool, removing the oppression the sun had been contributing to the scene all day, and b) being able to be seen on the many huge screens which in daylight were impossible to view, so were just in the way. The lead singer Brian Johnson grinning ear to ear, his eyes bulging out of his head, having an absolute blast being there, performing in front of so many people, his utter delight and enthusiasm infectious for all to feel. And the heartbeat of the band, Angus Young, one of the most dominant stage presences in rock, doing his own striptease thing, finally removing his pants to show half a million gleeful Canadians his underwear sporting the Canadian flag.

And then it was the Stones. They were fine, which translates to being really good because, after all, it’s the Stones, man! They were clearly enjoying themselves too, though trying really hard not to show it, as is their style. At one point, Justin Timberlake (who earlier in the day during his own set had been roundly booed) came on to do a bit of a duet with Mick, highlighting the decades-long gap in performing experience between the two. Keef clearly out of it, at one point taking an opportunity to mumble unintelligibly except to remind us of “why we’re here: for those that took the hit.” Thanks, Keith. Classic. Ronnie had some fun too, which is always nice. Charlie grimaced. All in all, watching the Stones play a set is a nice way to end a day-long sunburn fest sharing a space with a half million people.

On our way out of the fields and runways at the end of the night, our feet crunching down on a carpet of empty plastic water bottles. A crunch with literally every step, the ground riddled with them so that you couldn’t avoid stepping on one, going on for about a mile. No point waiting to get on the subway, would be waiting for hours, so S & I walked the few miles, along with thousands of other people, merriment the whole way, walking off those multiple pulled-beef sandwiches, a day well spent, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank god for self-agrandising politicians.

Aaaah, surf music

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Yes, surf music. One of the best ways to immerse oneself in an isolated, sheltered world when we just need a little respite from the big bad real world is to listen to music from a bygone era, one that invokes a simpler, gentler, more innocent era that never really existed in the first place. Easy fun in the sun, carefree beach life in SoCal or Hawaii.

Surf music, with its bar chords sliding up and down the guitars was, to my mind, really the original modern day garage band incarnation. Suburban postwar American youth with the spending money to buy mass produced electric guitars giving voice and attitude to their manana approach to life–nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it’s on grey and drizzly days like today when I feel that urge to brush the dustballs off my floral shirts, put on dark shades even though I’m inside, turn up the volume on the computer, and draw the blinds on the office window, imagining I’m at that most excellent beach, and…recline..

Some good places to start for surf tunes: http://www.live365.com/cgi-bin/directory.cgi?genre=surf. Number 2’s a good mix of classics as well as tunes hanging on the fringes of the genre.

Dave & Eddie Back Together Again: Best News All Decade Or Too Little Too Late?

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The almost original Van Halen back together again.Too late or too cool?I see where Van Halen is finally getting back together (for the most part–if you haven’t heard yet, original basist Mike Anthony wasn’t invited on this tour, to be replace with Eddie’s teenaged son, Wolfgang). It seems fitting to me that my first post concern Van Halen. I grew up with them, as a soundtrack to my misspent youth. (Just to be clear here: I’m talking about the original, the real, Van Halen, not the decade-long misfire of the Sammy Hagar iteration, or worse–heaven forbid–the very misguided, and frankly disturbing, “Van Halen III” debacle (no point going into it). I give Sammy marks for the good ol’ college try, but his interpretation of the lead singer role reduced a once-legendary band to a hollow imitation of the original VH’s imitators. Not good. By the mid-90s, Van Halen the band was nothing short of a joke. Such a long way to fall.

So, for the period of the first six albums, from 1978 through 1984, with flair, guitar razzle-dazzle, football jock fashion chic, and, frankly, good tunes, Van Halen contributed significantly to the pantheon of great rock’n’roll, transitioning the great classic rock of Led Zep, the Stones et al into the 80s, and standing as one of the lone legitimate rock alternatives in a pop industry that was quickly moving away from songwriting performers to embrace the Madonnas and Culture Clubs of the world. I’ve always said that when, in 1984, lead singer David Lee Roth left the band to pursue a solo career on the strength of his mini 4-song solo album Crazy from the Heat as well as his desire to leave the other, slacking members of the band (who didn’t want to go back into the studio anytime too soon), Van Halen was but an album away from being in the same stratosphere as the Rolling Stones, at least in North America (I acknowledge that they were hardly recognizable in, say, Europe, where, inexplicably, AC/DC ruled–better them than Iron Maiden, I suppose…).

But, yes, Van Halen was that popular and influential. Album sales figures alone don’t tell the tale (six releases, six straight multiple platinum albums). Eddie’s guitar crunch (what he later called his “brown” sound) alone changed the voice of Hollywood and TV advertising soundtracks for decades. (It still goes on. Heavy, distorted electric guitar is still the default soundtrack on just about everything. It wasn’t always that way: check out some pre-1980s Hollywood movies, if you don’t believe me. You’ll find classical, jazz, folk, all kinds–but not distorted electric guitar.) The VH boys spawned an interminable list of truly pathetic imitators (Ratt, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, etc.), which is nothing to be proud of, I know, but it is an indication of VH’s popularity and success that everyone was trying to squeeze into spandex and try their hands at double-tapping guitar techniques. In the original Van Halen, and hopefully in this latest edition, too, they could genuinely boast the best front man going in rock ‘n’ roll and the best guitarist. Not bad for one band.

And here’s the thing: David Lee Roth made Van Halen. Taking absolutely nothing away from Eddie Van Halen’s brilliant guitar work; it’s just that it was Dave’s penchant and particular skill for self-promotion that resulted in the world being introduced to EVH as the next guitar god. Dave was the one who pushed that image on the world. He was the mouth piece of the band, the conscience, the vision, the political awareness (if that’s not pushing it too far…). In short, he was the sensibility of the band, the ringmaster who made sure we were entertained. And as ringmaster, he promoted. He promoted Eddie as the hottest young guitar player alive (even though there were many arguments at the time to be made for other candidates–Clapton, Page, etc. and, later, Vai).

In fact, it was Dave’s idea in the first place to even call the band Van Halen. The previous name, when he joined up with the Van Halen bros., was Mammoth (not an altogether bad name, mind, but no chart topper). As Dave always explained his preference for the name Van Halen, it sounded “classy.” The point is, Van Halen being all about Eddie was not always the case; it’s only been since the Sammy years of darkness and mourning that the world, and most importantly Eddie, saw Van Halen the band as a superstructure built upon Eddie the guitar player. During the original vintage of the band, it was considered by fans to be named after both Van Halen brothers (drummer Alex being the other). But, even then, not exactly, because the most prominent figure in the band, the singer, wasn’t one of the brothers. In fact, in the early pre-fame days of the LA clubs, bar owners would give Dave the band’s gig payment, saying “Good show, Van. Here’s your pay.” This weird permutation just seemed to add a certain depth to the band, one that distinguished it from other bands of the day, one that went missing the day Dave left. The band Dave created carried on without him, cause it still had the name and the guitar player, but it got more embarrassing to listen to and think about with every passing year.

Which brings me finally to this reunion. It’s getting rave reviews so far, unanimously so, as far as I can tell. I have to still wonder, though: is this get-together too late to be meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll? Ten or twelve years ago Dave & Eddie probably could’ve picked up it up where they had left it back in the 80s and performed a legitimate second act, perhaps like Aerosmith (who became much more popular and successful in their comeback of original members). But now? In 2007? I worry for them. But, again, they’re getting the reviews, so, who knows? Maybe they can pull it off.

Good to see Dave back in the fold, where he belongs. Welcome home.