“I’ll be your substitute teacher for the remainder of the concert,” preened 57-year-old David Lee Roth last night, midway through Van Halen’s wry, spry two-hour gig at a sold-out Verizon Center. He was freestyling a new spoken interlude, as is his wont, to a resistence-is-futile Van Halen classic that already featured plenty of chitchat, “Hot for Teacher.”
Substitute? Puh-shaw! He’s the real guy!
This wasn’t Van Halen’s first tour with their cocksure original singer since they kicked him out of the band in the mid-eighties. Roth and the trio of Van Halens — guitar god Eddie, drummer Alex, and 21-year-old spawn-of-Eddie Wolfgang on the bass — made up and made a killing on the road in ‘07 and ‘08.
This time, Eddie kept his shirt on and instead flogged A Different Kind of Truth, the group’s first new album together since 1984 in 1984, approximately 125 Earth-years ago. Performed at detail-eradicating volume, the handful of new songs sounded enough like the circa 1978-84 warhorses dominating the set that no one seemed to notice. Roth’s attempt to get the mostly age-40-and-up crowd to sing “Tah! Too! Tah! Too!” during a new jam entitled, uh, “Tattoo” flamed out a lot faster than his post-Halen solo career did, though.
The passage of 35 or so years since Van Halen’s debut makes about as much difference to Eddie’s distinct, finger-tapping guitar sound as it does to the Grand Canyon. Whether shaped in the service of an actual song (“Dance the Night Away,” “Panama”) or allowed to roam free (as on the seminal instrumental “Eruption,” which elicited as much crowd frenzy as “Jump” did), its visceral power 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-mo replay on the huge video screen kind of was. His choreography was as slick as his patter was unintelligble. 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 (and 1979). 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 in the mix 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 divided Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” from The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
The two-dozen song setlist ignored the era of post-Roth singer Sammy Hagar entirely, even though the group actually logged four No. 1 albums with Hagar and none with Roth — and even though they continued to rock the Roth-era hits on their tours with Hagar.
Ballads? Those were Sammy’s thing. So the there was little respite save for a bizarre interlude that featured Roth picking at an acoustic guitar while we watched video of him frolicking 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.” Because dogs love ice cream, maybe?
The craziness was calculated. Every time he discarded some 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!
A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today’s Washington Post.