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Reviews, Feb. 7

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VAN HALEN IN ALL ITS "NESS." They rocked for real.
  • VAN HALEN IN ALL ITS "NESS." They rocked for real.

Van Halen

Jan. 30, Alltel

In the words of David Lee Roth, “three originals and one inevitable” came to town last week and, as I saw it, they kicked some ass. The band was the most recent version of Van Halen (VH version 3.2.1 or something like that) and from the perspective of an old guy who dearly loves Van Halen v.1, loathes “Van Hagar” (which, frankly, should've never made it past beta testing) and can't even tell you what that other crap was (that guy from Extreme? NO), this was the first Van Halen tour in years to get me excited enough to get off the couch and into the arena.

The hype is that this was a “reunion” of the original band, but that's just PR baloney. The “three originals” present were, of course, the Van Halen brothers (Eddie and Alex) and the only real front man Van Halen ever had — Mr. David Lee Roth. The “one inevitable” was one Wolfgang Van Halen, who is Ed's son, Alex's nephew and all of about 16, on the bass. That's right, no Michael Anthony, so this was not the “original” Van Halen, end of story.

So, you might ask, if this wasn't the original band, why care? Because this latest incarnation of the band marks a return to the original “ness” of the band — call it “Van Halen-ness.” To wit, oftentimes truly original, ground-breaking, sincere, spiritual music (like Van Halen, v.1) happens not as a result of all of the elements being objectively “good,” but rather because when thrown all together, it just works — each element brings out the best of whatever it is that is so truly original, ground-breaking, sincere and spiritual in the first place. The problem arises when great bands play together for so long that they lose sight of their “ness.” This is usually borne out of some motivation to make it “better,” which usually leads to replacing what some satanic A&R guy has convinced the band is The Weak Link. Think of all the times you've heard it said that “Ringo Starr is the worst drummer,” or as it was later in the Roth era for Van Halen, “David Lee Roth is an idiot, they need to get someone who can really sing, and write about something that means something.” Well, history has now taught us that this was, is and always will be bullshit.

Back to the show: Although this was not the original band, Van Halen-ness was in full effect. From soup to nuts, this was a bitchin' show. The killer song list was taken mostly from “Van Halen I” and “II,” “Fair Warning” (yes!), “Diver Down” and “1984.” And the crowd was all Dude Power. My air guitar chops are rusty, but I busted out a few air whammy bar dive bombs anyway.

Michael Anthony was missed. The whole bottle of Jack Daniels in one sip thing? The impossibly high harmonies? The fighting the bass thing, and the beating-out-the-quarter-notes-on-“Running with the Devil”-with-his-fist thing? Not there. But I've got to tell you, Wolfie is a really good bass player, and seeing him up there with his dad and uncle gave the show a nice vibe that no other fill-in bass player could have.

Another great thing about Wednesday night is that this was not a show designed to win over new fans, as these dinosaur rock tours often attempt to do. This was a concert built to give those who are in touch with their Van Halen-ness a shot of the real stuff. No overly stupid light show. No new songs. Just Van Halen giving it to us full strength, with David Lee Roth as the perfect foil to the mad guitar skills of EVH and Alex demonstrating that drummers in a rock band need to, well, rock.

Did the concert equal the pandemonium found in Reunion Arena, circa 1982, where, on the second night of a two-night stand, Roth “forgot the f****ing words” during the breakdown in “Unchained”? Did Eddie's guitar explorations bring about the spiritual awakening of feeling that tone — the “Brown Sound” — exploding out 12 to 15 Marshall stacks as he channeled one sick riff after another through a guitar that was essentially hacked together with garden tools and had pickups wound so hot they had to be dipped in wax just to keep them from howling with uncontrollable feedback? Well, no, no way. Yes, the “Brown Sound” was there, but it was, well, all grown up. And that's OK, because it's still a beautiful sound.

Chris Michaels

James Blood Ulmer

Feb. 2, Staples Auditorium, Hendrix College

James Blood Ulmer's first record came out in the midst of New York City's experimental downtown No Wave scene. With free jazz giant Ornette Coleman producing and squalling priceless alto sax up into the mix, Ulmer laid down a some of the most original, explosive guitar skronk to grace a vinyl groove. To these noise-ready ears, it still cuts like a knife. To any sonic plunderer out there looking for pleasure, I submit Ulmer's “Tales Of Captain Black,” even now in 2008, as a document of ascending guitar genius.

Saturday night, Hendrix College saw the arrival of a different James Blood Ulmer. Having flown down to Arkansas from New York on his 66th birthday, Ulmer brought six younger men to round out his seven-piece ensemble.

I came to the show expecting sonic delights of an abstract nature, mixed with some down home blues alchemy. Instead, Ulmer and his band delivered a big dose of blues-rock expertise, cascading riffology and good time boogie-woogie. Aside from Ulmer, the band could have been Paul Butterfield Blues Band, blasting off at the Fillmore circa 1968. This was music whose text had already been written and dissected over the last 40 years. The harmonica bends and fiddle antics rang familiar, while Vernon Reid's land-speed-record riffing reminded me of what a tasteful and understated guitar player Mike Bloomfield was. This is not to take advantage of Vernon Reid. He's a creature of this era, where speed is the coin of the realm — sometimes, oddly, at the expense of detail. There were cameos aplenty, jamming to spare, soulful interludes and then there was musician number seven, James Blood Ulmer himself. Plunking himself down front and center amidst his sidemen after a warm-up number, Ulmer brought the defining element to this large group. When he started to sing, it became clear that we were looking down the generations. I was reminded of the aged Howlin' Wolf, still croaking out the pain and hope in a way that would make Tom Waits weep. And it was clear that the pain was real, the voice authentic. Ulmer ran down the voodoo, cracking open such chestnuts as Willie Dixon's “Spoonful” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” He even slowed down Berry Gordy's “Money (That's What I Want)” to great effect. And therein the goods were delivered.

Ulmer left his guitar fire back in NYC, or perhaps back in an earlier time. Aside from a few half hearted solos, hampered by a squealing wah-wah peddle that he quickly abandoned, he seemed frustrated and perhaps a bit tired, relegating his signature guitar sound to a few stabbing punctuations. His playing sounded out of place and out of time in the polished surroundings and three-chord enclosure he'd set himself up in. His raw tone sounded lost. The simplicity and lock step of the various blues progressions left no room for his brand of seeking atonality. Still, Ulmer seemed relaxed and cheerful on his birthday, and once I gave up on my lofty expectations, I settled into the groove and enjoyed myself.

Having fought the many angular avant-garde battles that brought him to 66, James Blood Ulmer has come full circle, back round to a deep blues from which modern experimental music sprung. It was a great privilege to see him come and go here in Arkansas, as it's clear that his is a breed apart, whose like is not often seen.

Charlie James

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