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Van Hagar vs. Van Heineken

Two bands duel for (cover) band supremacy

Viagra and Van Halen have a lot in common. Both are about rejuvenated blood flow and eruption. Too bad only the little blue tablet is still guaranteed to bring about cock rock. Van Halen, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a bitter pill to swallow.

That's not to say that the Van Halen — or "Van Hagar" — that played Philips Arena Fri., Sept. 17, was without merit. The show lacked spandex and giant jumps, but there still were highlights. Reunited with singer Sammy Hagar after eight years, Eddie Van Halen, brother Alex, and longtime pal Michael Anthony seemed to be loving every minute of their revitalized groove, especially after the trials of Eddie's tongue cancer, hip replacement and divorce. (Not to mention the disaster that was Gary Cherone.)

Before the show began, the restless crowd, basking in the gleam of the advertisement screens circling Philips Arena, cheered for every random flicking light and clueless roadie to wander across the stage. When the lights finally dimmed, those in the shrieking throng were given a literal reason to "Jump" from their seats, as the group opened with the David Lee Roth-era No. 1 hit.

His drums echoing from the darkness, Alex, a white band about his forehead, appeared underneath a towering cracked circular mine housing a video screen. Eddie, emerging stage left in nothing but torn jeans and a guitar, appeared with the kind of ripped torso you expect on a 19-year-old, not a 49-year-old.

The rest of the group seemed equally ready to rock. Bassist Anthony — who surely thanks God every day for his good fortune, because it wasn't prodigious skill that got him where he is now — delivered his two-note bass lines with genuine enthusiasm. And then there's "Red Rocker" Sammy Hagar. Hagar's like a fraternity brother cheering you on to do another tequila shot. And you know tequila — it's great for a party, but sometimes it's a little tough to stomach.

Parts of the set list were like that, too, especially a completely unpalatable two-song Hagar solo interlude best forgotten. It's hard to deny "Jump," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "Unchained" and "Panama." Oh, wait, those are all David Lee Roth-era songs, and they seemed to get the most love from the crowd and the band. But even on the worst cuts, Eddie's flurrying finger work made for interesting moments, as heavenly harmonics and demonic growls issued from his guitar.

Across town, the Star Bar was also packed for a performance by the protest cover band Van Heineken. The group of mostly locals, including frontman Jon Waterhouse, guitarist Alberto Cruz, bassist Max Forstater, and drummer Kelly Sanford, were dedicated to playing all Roth-era songs, all the time. Their set up at the relatively teeny Star Bar lacked the grandiosity of the goings-on at Philips. But what Heineken lacked in actual stage, they made up for in stage presence.

Bulging at their vests with sweat-soaked bandanas tied underneath thickets of permed curls, the not-so-lithe members of Van Heineken worked to elevate excess and incoherence to a Roth-like art form. The band's sound had a guttural thrust, and the onstage antics included midget stagehands delivering shots and throwing free T-shirts to the crowd. (At Philips, they were selling shirts for 40 bucks.)

Both Vans, Hagar and Heineken, seemed like cover bands when performing the classic Roth material. But the difference was that Heineken felt no obligation to keep a straight face about it. These guys pranced and pouted behind microphone stands littered with panties, as the guitarist admirably handled Eddie's flurried squeals and runs. Van Heineken squeezed all the juice from the lemons, and it wasn't just because of the spandex.

tony.ware@creativeloafing.com