The definitive Van Halen tribute band gets unchained at LaSalles
When I picked up guitar in the early ‘80s, Eddie Van Halen was a certified god.
Wannabe wankers everywhere imitated his unmistakable right-hand fret tapping and warm, power chord crunch. At 14, I went to see the guitarist behind the “Eruption” solo in concert at the Richmond Coliseum in Virginia. There, through clouds of ganja smoke and seas of puka-necklace-wearing surfers, I witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle that was the original Van Halen—king of the genre now officially known as cock rock.
And boy did I rock out—standing on my chair, devil-signs waving high as the mega-volume bass actually vibrated my shirt. The group performed in front of a wall of Marshall stacks about 40 feet high and, after the spectacular production, made news for destroying a dressing room when someone found a green M&M—an item outlawed in their contract. What rock stars!
A couple years later, Van Halen was history. Lead singer and resident assless-chaps model David Lee Roth left to pursue an ill-fated solo career, and the remaining members nose-dived into watered-down, pop-metal crap.
Unfortunately, the new Halen, with vocals by Sammy “I Can’t Drive 55” Hagar, continued to play. Since then, the group has gone through another singer (the Extreme guy), while sales slumped lower than Kenneth Lay at an employee office party. The band recently parted from Warner Bros.—its record label for over 20 years—and is still looking for another lead singer (I don’t know the phone number).
Now let’s forget about Van Halen and get to the real attraction: the cover band.
Friday nights in downtown Chico are hectic. Wild packs of collegiates roam the streets of candy land howling at the moon, puking on the street, and basically acting like they never had a drink before. What better environment to see a cover band devoted to preserving the glory days of VH1’s “greatest hard rock band #7"?
The Atomic Punks are uncanny. It was apparent from the first high-pitched scream that this L.A. band produces a frighteningly approximate reproduction of classic Halen sound. Forget about indie-rocker and hip-hop-types, there was nothing but blue-collar rockers and prize mullets in attendance tonight—party people juiced to see and hear songs from their favorite rock group of yesteryear.
With a Spandex-and-leather-clad lead singer (Ralph “Diamond Dave” Saenz) and guitarist (Brian Young) who sounded more like Van Halen’s records than the original band did, the Punks tore through a full set of early VH songs, featuring oddities the band rarely played live.
Opening with the ironic “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” the band played note-for-note versions of everything from “Beautiful Girls” and “I’m On Fire” to “And the Cradle Will Rock,” “Ice Cream Man,” “Little Guitars,” “Jamie’s Crying,” “Hot for Teacher,” an extended “Eruption” and “Dance the Night Away"—featuring former CN&R photographer Sarah Sipes dancing onstage. The only non-Halen song was Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”
The lead singer was great at keeping the crowd involved, often congratulating their participation ("You guys rock!") and passing the mic to audience members so they could sing favorite verses. You could tell from the energy of sweaty fans down front that everybody was having a great time—which, as Saenz began the night telling us, is the point of the band.
“We don’t think we’re Van Halen. … We just want you to enjoy yourselves and to celebrate the greatest fucking heavy-metal band of all-time!” Rock.
Call it what you will—live karaoke, an unoriginal Spinal Tap act, a pathetic yet strangely arousing trip down memory lane—but the Atomic Punks are certainly the greatest cover band this reviewer has ever seen (actually, the only other one I saw was a band dressed like Kiss at a barn party one Halloween).
And that is precisely why a famous group like the Foo Fighters wants the Atomic Punks to open for them on their upcoming national tour. Anybody else see a good documentary film in there somewhere? Sometimes artistic failure can be more interesting then success—or so I hear.