“I’ll be your substitute teacher for the remainder of the concert,” preened 57-year-old David Lee Roth on Wednesday night, midway through Van Halen’s wry, spry gig at a sold-out Verizon Center. He was introducing the Van Halen classic “Hot for Teacher.”
Substitute? Psshaw! Roth’s the real thing!
This wasn’t Van Halen’s first tour with its cocksure original singer since he was kicked out of the band in the mid-1980s. Roth and the trio of Van Halens — guitar god Eddie, drummer Alex and 21-year-old spawn-of-Eddie, Wolfgang, on bass — made up and made a killing on the road in 2007 and into ’08.
This time, Eddie kept his shirt on and instead flogged “A Different Kind of Truth,” Van Halen’s first full album with Roth since 1984. Performed at detail-eradicating volume, a handful of new songs sounded enough like the circa 1978-84 warhorses that dominated the two-hour set to pass muster. But Roth’s attempt to get the mostly middle-aged crowd to sing “Tah! Too! Tah! Too!” during a new jam entitled, uh, “Tattoo” flamed out faster than his post-Halen solo career did.
The passage of three decades since Van Halen’s debut has altered Eddie’s distinct, finger-tapping guitar sound about as much as it’s changed the Grand Canyon. Whether shaped into the service of an actual song (like “Dance the Night Away” or “Panama”) or allowed to roam free (as on the seminal instrumental “Eruption,” which elicited as much crowd frenzy as “Jump” did), the visceral power of Eddie’s playing is undeniable.
While Roth appeared to have preserved the slithery physicality of his MTV years, he doles out his signature scissor-kicks more sparingly nowadays. These moves were not embarrassing, but the fact that every single kick got a dutiful slow-motion replay on the huge video screen kind of was.
Roth’s choreography was as smooth as his patter was unintelligible. He’d pivot his feet in opposite directions then back together, take a knee, twirl his microphone stand like it was a baton or a UCLA Bruins cheerleader. A cornball showman beats a mopey, bearded balladeer any day.
His singing was up to the job, heavily punctuated with “Wooo!” Eddie’s guitar was louder than anything else, which is the natural order of things, but it would’ve been nice to feel what the rhythm section was doing, other than during the Latin-accented drum solo that bridged covers of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
Ballads? As if! Slow songs were a feature of the post-Roth, Sammy Hagar-fronted Van Halen, which the show ignored. The only rest was an odd interlude with Roth picking on an acoustic guitar while the screen showed footage of him playing on a farm with his sheepdogs. It was like he’d suddenly decided to throw the newsboy cap he wore for half a song into the Republican primary race. The bit ended with him singing the double-entendre-laden “Ice Cream Man.”
But the craziness was calculated. Every time Roth discarded clothing, he tossed it not to the front rows of audience (populated mainly by men), but to a stagehand who carefully brushed off and replaced each sequined jacket on a rack that remained in plain sight throughout the show. Rock-and-roll!
Klimek is a freelance writer.