Van Halen: Alive and Riffing

Like old times: Alex Van Halen, left, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen.
Like old times: Alex Van Halen, left, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Dave McKenna
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 3, 2007

As sure as the rivers will flow and the sun will rise, David Lee Roth will get canned from Van Halen. Again, that is -- just as he was canned in 1985.

But for more than two hours at Verizon Center on Thursday, Roth was in the fold, and the giggles were back. By the time Roth yelled, "We're back! I heard you missed us!," as Eddie Van Halen plucked the golden riff that carries "Hot for Teacher," it was clear that hard rock was never more fun than when these guys were making it together.

Roth, now 52, described the current Van Halen lineup as "three-quarters original and one-quarter inevitable," the originals being himself and Eddie and Alex Van Halen. The inevitable is ingenue bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, the teenage son of the onetime "It" couple Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli. (During a brief walk-through of the arena, proud mom Bertinelli, now a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, got more cheers than the Van Halen dirigibles that floated above the crowd just before showtime.)

The night had flaws, for sure. The sound mix was often horrendous, with Wolfgang's bass muddy from first note to last. And although every audience member knew every word and how and when it should be sung, Roth occasionally seemed lost: He missed every vocal cue on "Jump," rendering perhaps the band's trademark tune unlistenable.

But the minuses got pancaked by the pluses. The old guys were far fitter than tabloid reports indicated. Since the first parting with Roth, Eddie has survived: oral cancer, a hip replacement, the breakups of his marriage and his partnerships with Sammy Hagar and original bassist Michael Anthony, and enough trips to rehab to embarrass Lindsay Lohan. He didn't even show up at Van Halen's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction this year, reportedly because of health issues. But here he was at 52 shirtless and so ripped you could see every tendon in his upper body whenever he launched himself off the drum riser for any of his countless flying split kicks.

Eddie's fingers can still walk, too. For "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," he nailed the solo break that, back in 1978, announced him to the pop world. By now, other folks have adopted his fret-tapping, hyper-fast playing style, and even surpassed him in technique. Then again, Picasso wasn't the only guy ever to paint a bent nose: Eddie introduced tapping to the dirtball masses and thereby changed the way electric guitar was played.

Roth, too, flaunted a physique that can come only from a diet of tofu and pull-ups. Roth let his Dirty Dave side hold court for most of the night. He told the crowd he was "lookin' for my own Hannah Montana!" during "Running With the Devil." He stuffed a fan's cellphone into his leather pants during "Everybody Wants Some," then launched into a monologue that had him telling an imaginary partner to "Lose the dress, keep the shoes." All in fun, mind you.

Roth dropped the nutty act only briefly, while introducing "Ice Cream Man," as he recounted how great life was when he first joined the band in the early 1970s and they charged $1 a head to play local house parties.

The band's melding of gaiety and ingenuity was clearest during "Panama." While Roth frolicked and led the crowd in a screamalong of the title, Eddie and Wolfgang sang falsetto harmonies. Like much of the band's vintage output, it mixed the power-chord crunch of the heaviest metal with the high-lonesome angst of bluegrass. Nobody before or since ever made such a sound.

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