Lake Worth, Fl – It was an unseasonably warm night, about 80 degrees in South Florida. It has been almost a year to the day since the music died due to pandemic leading to mass cancellations of any and all music events. However, on the night of February 27th, 2021 at Mathews Brewing Company in Lake Worth, FL., many of us will see what we have been longing for since early 2020. A live show! This may not be the all-out arena show, but it was the next best thing. A night with Completely Unchained, the premier Van Halen Tribute band. It is arena rock on a much smaller scale.
North American PCN Magazine Correspondent Ivan Romero was there to capture the show visually and also had an opportunity to speak with founder and lead singer, Gene Henriksen. Henriksen becomes his alter ego, David Lee Roth, during the show. The band members, on this night, included Jake C. Miller portraying the legend Eddie Van Halen, Julian Simonelli as Michael Anthony on bass guitar and a special treat on the drums, none other than Zoltan Chaney of Slaughter, Vince Neil and Blandini fame.
The anticipation in the intimate sold out crowd at Mathews Brewing Company was palpable. After almost an entire year to the day, live music fans were able to enjoy a true live rock-n-roll show and Completely Unchained did not disappoint. For those of us who are Van Halen fans or even those who are not, watching Henriksen and the boys do their thing is about as close as you are going to get to seeing an actual Van Halen show. They are truly masters of their craft. And then, of course for this night, you had the bonus of watching one of the most animated drummers in the game, Zoltan Chaney. It was an amazing show.
The show included a great collection of songs from all of Van Halen’s history and included the following; “Jump”, “Running With The Devil”, “Mean Street”, “Dance The Night Away”, “Panama”, “Hot For Teacher”, “You Really Got Me”, “Bottoms Up”, “Little Dreamer”, “Jamie’s Crying”, “And The Cradle Will Rock”, “Pretty Woman”, “Eruption”, “Ice Cream Man”, “Unchained”, “So This Is Love” and “Somebody Get Me A Doctor”.
Here is what Henriksen had to say to PCN Magazine:
PCN: What is the origin of the band, and why a Van Halen tribute and not some other band?
GH: Well, the Van Halen tribute is something I grew up listening to my whole life. The first Van Halen album, one of the first tracks like “Running with the Devil”, the first time I heard that particular song, It was like, that was something I would love to be part of. So, growing up, Roth was one of my idols. I was originally a drummer, but then I would come out front and do some Van Halen stuff so, I adapted to the Roth, Van Halen era immediately. If you want to pay tribute to any band, there is nothing like Van Halen, you know, you can dress the way you want, act the way you want, it’s all about having a good time and just having fun. That’s what I love about Van Halen and their songs are amazing.
PCN: Many folks our age would say that ‘Van Halen 1’, ‘Van Halen 2’, ‘Women and Children First’, ‘Fair Warning’ and ‘Diver Down’ were the soundtracks of their youth, what are your thoughts on early Van Halen music?
GH: I totally agree that people that are 50 and over that this was definitely the soundtrack of all the youth growing up, in that genre. You know, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, your soundtracks with a lot of great music that we grew up listening to and watching.
PCN: What are your thoughts on the move away from the traditional Van Halen sound starting with ‘1984’, “Jump” introduced the keyboards and synthesizers, what are your thoughts on that?
GH: I thought it was a good idea. The thing about Edward is he likes to experiment, and I think the keyboard thing was gonna give them another dimension, maybe a broader dimension. As a Van Halen fan, it didn’t change the way I love the band. I feel all those songs are great. Almost like Aerosmith or AC/DC, you know, every tune they do is good so them adding keyboards to a particular album, who knows, the next album could’ve been totally different with no keyboards, maybe something they were trying to experiment. But from what I understand, it was their best-selling record so, if that the case and they want to add keyboards in a couple of songs on future albums, I don’t think it would have been a problem with the fans.
PCN: What is the age demographic at a Completely Unchained show? Do you find that the audience transcends generations?
GH: The fact that Eddie Van Halen was such an influence on so many guitar players that our age group ages from young kids, 6 to 7 years old that are learning to play guitar, to 65-year-old people. So, the age demographic, you know, is broad. It starts with the young children and goes up to the mid-age adults and the over the mid-age adults you would say, the 60 and over crowd. That’s the kind of crowd that we bring, especially when it’s a free show, all ages, a lot of kids come out. They always want to take a picture with Jake because you know, they love Eddie and he looks and sounds just like Eddie.
PCN: He sure does. Someone recently told me that they visited your website and were watching the videos and couldn’t believe how much Miller does look like Eddie Van Halen when performing. You are absolutely right in that respect. I am sure you get this question all the time, Van Halen or Van Hagar? Who did it best?
GH: VAN HALEN! The original, I am always a fan of the original. Nothing against Van Hagar, I think Sammy was a great singer and probably the only guy that could’ve followed after Dave. Their songs were unbelievable but, you know, that wasn’t the genre that I was brought up on. I was brought up on the Dave… and I thought that Dave had all the swag and, you know, he was one of those guys that every night, just brought it and that’s what made Van Halen so successful. The party wasn’t Dave, it was everybody in the band; Eddie, Mike and Al, you know, you really couldn’t create that sound without either one of those guys in the band.
PCN: Agree. I am also partial to Van Halen myself. So, how do you select the set list for each show and how many songs are there typically in a Completely Unchained show?
GH: Well, when I do the set list, because I’m responsible for that, I like to pick songs that are going to bring fans up. Then you got to bring them down a bit because they got some hits like “Woman in Love”, you know, like the B-sides like ‘Secrets’ and stuff like that. That kind of sets the tone for the end of the set where we bring it back up where we do “Hot For Teacher” and “Unchained”. The setlist, to me, whether you are playing in front of 5,000 people is very important, so I think the tone is to come out like they did, kick ass, kind of bring it down to a mood toward the middle of the set, then leave kickin’ ass. That’s how I approach the setlist.
PCN: That’s how I remember every Van Halen show I ever saw. Now, going into what has happened over the past year, how was Completely Unchained affected when the pandemic took hold?
GH: Our last show, was March 12th, 2020 at the Tampa Hard Rock. Our next show is at the Tampa Hard Rock tomorrow. The effect, obviously, rippled through the whole music scene. And you know, it definitely crippled all of us that do this for a living. But being in Florida, the only state eventually that opened up maybe 3,4,5, maybe 6 months later, started opening up a little bit. So we started getting some work, which was great, because I want to keep my guys working, we need to make a little bit of money. But we all have to, you know, pay attention to the rules and what’s going on in our country or it’s never going to get back to normal. But the effect was horrible. But we seem to manage, we seem to manage and just stuck it out like everybody else. And hopefully in the next three to four months, it’s going to be back to normal. I don’t know if it’s going to be back to normal. But in Florida, it seems to be opening up a little bit more than everywhere else in the country.
PCN: I’ve been seeing the same thing. Would you say that the current schedule that you guys have is still lighter compared to the pre-pandemic time? Because I see that you guys are pretty solidly booked for the next couple months.
GH: You know, the situation what happened between the pandemic and Eddie’s passing you know, was devastating to the band and obviously all the fans all over the world. But the thing moving forward, more people will come out and see the band now and I hope nobody takes us the wrong way due to Eddie’s passing because there’s no there’s no more Van Halen. I mean, I wouldn’t go see a Van Halen without Eddie. That’s just me. I’m sure there’s hundreds of guitar players that can come in and do it, but it’s not at Van Halen. So, post pandemic to pandemic now. I believe we’re going to get more work, you know, because the country is opening up. But it’s the fact that the passing of Eddie, I think will help because we want to carry the flag and pay justice to the music of Van Halen. So, you know, I think it’s all gonna get better towards the end of like the fall.
PCN: Actually it’s interesting you answered the very next question I had, which is dealing with the loss of Eddie, and how Completely Unchained has been received as a result. So I appreciate you getting ahead of me on that one. Is the schedule still light compared to pre-pandemic times?
GH: So it’s a question everyone asked me. That’s one of the first questions so I’m prepared for that answer.
PCN: How has the return to the stage been, and do you find that fans are turning out in the same numbers are there those that are still being cautious because of the pandemic?
GH: I think our numbers are growing. We just had a special guest drummer, Zoltan Chaney, from the Vince Neil Band and he’s just one of those high-level entertaining drummers that is so great to watch besides being an amazing player, him and the passing of Eddie, and the fact that people do want to get out. We’ve been selling out since the New Year, all of our shows have been sold out. 200 people, or 500 people or 50 people, whatever the venue is letting in at that particular time. Most of the time, 99.9% have sold out.
PCN: I saw you guys played for the troops overseas. Has there been any other talk or possibilities of touring internationally?
GH: Well, I went to Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and you know, it’s something I’ll never forget. It was an experience that was very, very cool. As for going back over, last I spoke to my agent about five months ago, things are still, you know, like COVID over there. So, but if they called me up tomorrow and said, you want to go back over, I will do it in a second.
PCN: That is awesome. Okay, what’s the largest crowd Completely Unchained has ever played for? And have you played any arenas?
GH: We haven’t done arena. But I think one of our largest crowds is a bike night in Coral Springs, no, Cape Coral, Fl for about 15 to 20,000 people. And when you got 15,000 and 20,000 people that came out to hear Van Halen, and they know the words to every song, it’s something you’ll never forget. Another experience they’ll never forget is when you have that many people that really love what you do it really it’s a great feeling. Knowing that people come out to have a good time to listen to your band play Van Halen.
PCN: Have any members of Van Halen ever attended a Completely Unchained show?
GH: Not that I’m aware of. That would have been awesome. We’re trying to get Michael Anthony to possibly come in and play one day. Well, you know, it’s tough to get in touch with these guys. And they got so much going on.
PCN: I know Michael Anthony was touring with The Circle. I got a chance to catch them at the Hard Rock. Any parting comments and what’s next on the agenda for Completely Unchained?
GH: Well, we’re gonna, we’re gonna settle down, and try and get all our dates filled for the fall. I’m already probably pretty much booked for July, a couple of days in August, September is filling up October start filling up, you know, once people start opening up, their part of the country will start getting some phone calls. But basically, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re just going to settle down and start reaching out to the venues that we played in the past, and hopefully, they’re going to start booking us. Get this ball rolling my friend.