There’s been a lot of speculation over David Lee Roth’s ability to hold his own onstage with the refurbished Van Halen.
Time hasn’t been kind to Roth’s pipes since the late ‘80s, when he infamously left Van Halen to forge a modestly successful solo career (“Just a Gigolo,” “California Girls,” “Yankee Rose”). In the late ‘90s the hirsute alpha male front man disappeared from radar to work as a paramedic, take flying lessons, and parlay his trademark jive talk into a gig as a disc jockey in New York.
Meanwhile, brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen forged on with Sammy Hagar (“I Can’t Drive 55”) on vocals. The “Van Hagar” incarnation of the band cut a string of albums (5150, OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge) that sold just as well as the ones with Roth (with singles “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Finish What Ya Started,” and “Poundcake”—and which kept the Van Halen name at the top of the charts.
Despite the continued success, Van Halen Mach II polarized its core followers with too-pretty power ballads (“When It’s Love”) and optimistic worldview (“Right Now”): We loved both, but many preferred Roth’s swaggering, unapologetic braggadocio over Hagar’s beachgoer bonhomie.
The group’s strangest iteration yet came in 1997, when ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone signed on for Van Halen III. The “More Than Words” crooner sounded terrific when VH played Gund Arena in ’98, but the chemistry wasn’t right for a prolonged partnership.
Estranged from Van Halen for one reason or another (depending on whose stories you believed), Roth and Hagar improbably joined forces for a co-headlining tour in 2002, whereon each revisited his respective VH hits.
Hagar’s last disc with the band was twenty years ago, 1995’s Balance (he recorded a couple new tracks for a VH best-of compilation and reunion tour in 2004). The “Red Rocker” now sings in the super-groups Chickenfoot and The Circle—both featuring former VH bassist Michael Anthony—and looks after his Cabo Wabo resort in San Lucas.
Only Hagar and Anthony—Van Halen’s inactive alumni—showed up when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That’s pretty much how the 2000s played out for Van Halen aficionados: Daily doses of disappointment, opportunities lost, and woulda-been, shoulda-been debates in chat forums.
But Roth emerged from hiding in 2007 for his first tour with the Van Halen brothers in over twenty years. That outing was the band’s highest-grossing ever, but it wasn’t until 2012 that “Diamond Dave” would lend his distinctive pipes to a new Van Halen album. Even then, the bulk of A Different Kind of Truth drew from decades-old guitar riffs from Eddie’s vault.
Still, the band sounded amazing, even with Roth’s diminished range. Eddie was playing guitar the way he used to, like an electrified Paganini possessed. Alex was a reborn thunder god on drums, and young recruit Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie’s son with Valerie Bertinelli) capably filled the bass parts and background vocals in Michael Anthony’s stead.
Fan fears were further eased yesterday when Van Halen returned to Ohio’s Blossom Music Center in support of their recent Live From Tokyo Dome (a 2-CD concert set recorded in June 2013). The verdict’s out on whether Roth diehards give the singer’s Tokyo Dome performance a pass, but Dave acquitted himself marvelously at Monday’s show (thank you very much), shucking his way through the old-school anthems that made him the quintessential ‘80s hair band poster boy.
Given that the Pasadena rebels are only playing Roth-era tunes on tour (unlike when Hagar covered the Roth classics during his tenure), the majority of the material on offer in Cuyahoga Falls harkened to Van Halen’s heyday (circa 1978-1984), well before “Wolfie” was even born. In fact, the band delivered most of 1979’s Van Halen II and half of 1984 alongside choice cuts from Women and Children First and Fair Warning.
And we loved it.
So if you’ve always aligned yourself with the Roth camp (or you perennially prefer the Ted Templeman-produced platters to VH’s canon du Hagar), Blossom was the place to be.
We’d say it wasn’t your father’s Van Halen, but these days, the fathers we’d be referring to are you and me. Because we’ve all got our own kids now—just like certain guitar gods we worshipped growing up.
So when Eddie brought his drum deity brother and bass-thumping son back to Blossom last night, it may have sounded like the past—but it felt like we were looking at the future.
Van Halen’s and…ours.
To quote Roger Daltrey, the kids are alright: Wolfie’s the real deal. And with the injection of fresh blood, there just might always be a Van Halen.
But Monday’s set was a nostalgic, No Bozos affair that—for us and the several thousand in attendance—punched all the right emotional buttons.
True believers couldn’t have wanted for a more incendiary icebreaker than “Light Up the Sky,” whose ascending guitar riff and propulsive rhythm provided a sturdy springboard for Roth’s smarmy shtick. “Running With the Devil” and “Romeo Delight” (with its urgent Baby, please—I can’t take it anymore! chorus) sunk fans even deeper into VH’s spandex oeuvre.
The quartet was equal parts jungle jukebox and street urchin stereo, with Alex employing a tribal drumbeat on “Everybody Wants Some!!” and Eddie grinding out crunchy chords on strip club canto “Drop Dead Legs.”
Manhandling basses with blue, grey, and bumblebee striped motifs (like Eddie’s “Frankenstrat” guitars), 24-year Wolfgang was all business, imbuing “Feel Your Love Tonight” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” with the upper-register vocals harmonies once rendered by the Jack Daniels-chugging Anthony. “She’s the Woman” kicked off with Wolfie’s warbling bass lick, and was a welcome entry from his maiden voyage in dad’s band (A Different Kind of Truth). “China Town” saw father and son working side-by-side to pull off some acrobatic fret work.
“I don’t even know what song is next,” admitted Roth, caught up in the good time.
“I practice selective denial, like in my last three relationships!”
Roth’s curtailed the karate-kicks and high altitude leaping, but he’s still a charismatic, hyperkinetic entertainer whose limbs were in constant motion (like frayed power lines). Wearing black pants and matching vest (concealing prodigious pectoral tattoos) instead of the biker uni-tards of yore, Roth’s more vaudevillian minstrel now than Valhallan uber-male, slipping and sliding across a waxed floor beneath Alex’s drum riser.
That’s okay by us. It’s unreasonable to expect backflips and scissor kicks from any 60-year old, and those who suggest Roth should “act his age” should realize by now that he already is.
What’s more, we’ve witnessed Roth’s gradual transformation in person, having attended all his solo shows in our neck of the woods since 1988’s Skyscraper (whose roadshow brought Dave to Blossom with guitarist Steve Vai…and a regulation-sized boxing ring). So it’s not as if his dimpled-grinned snake oil salesman / carnival barker is any kind of revelation; Roth’s incorporated Las Vegas vamping and Tin Pan Alley aesthetics into his repertoire since the ‘90s. He may not be the athlete he was at 25 (or even 35) but he’s every bit the showman.
Case in point: Roth’s solo spot late on saw him sitting center-stage for a palaver during which he reminisced and idly strummed an acoustic guitar (between harmonica blasts). He recalled opening for Journey and Black Sabbath in the ‘70s, and how the guys contorted themselves when sleeping on the tour bus.
“We’d open for any band crazy enough to have us…and we’d usually get fired three weeks in!”
Dave said his current tour bus resembles Dolly Parton’s bathroom.
It didn’t take long to see where he was going with al this banter (and blues finger-picking): His unplugged take on John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man” coalesced into the anvil-heavy version heard on Van Halen’s Warner Bros. debut, and yes, Eddie nailed the overdriven, tap-laden guitar solo.
“This is how I did it then, and this is how I do it now,” Roth mused.
“Somewhere along the way, I got to be part of the best rock band this world has ever known!”
Roth also swapped jackets every two or three songs, ducking behind Wolfie’s wall of amps for new pinstriped coats (with rainbow liners) or scarves to swirl and swat, like a feline. Sometimes he’d change costumes in eyeshot, giving spectators a full view of his heavily-inked abs, arms, and shoulder blades.
Other highlights were Diver Down back-track “Little Guitars,” 1984’s bawdy “Hot for Teacher,” and a Van Halen II medley wherein Eddie and the gang barreled through “Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls,” and “Women in Love.” Women and Children First favorite “In a Simple Rhyme” meshed well with salacious Fair Warning song “Dirty Movies” (and came with the record’s hidden addendum jam, “Growth”). “Unchained” (another ’81 rocker) and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” found the guys rounding third and heading for home.
But not without pausing for what was—in the eyes of many VH ticket-holders—the piece de resistance: Eddie’s guitar solo.
The six-string showcase was not unlike that heard on either of the band’s two live albums (and countless bootlegs) in that it was an amalgam of the best bits from all Eddie’s famous stand-alone solos. There was the flamenco buzz of the “Little Guitars” intro and the mariachi runs of “Spanish Fly.” There was the percussive fretboard slapping of “Mean Streets” and the volume knob swells of the hymn like “Cathedral.” And stitching all the elements together was Eddie’s signature hammer-on, pull-off bonanza, “Eruption”—which climaxed with a whammy-bar dive-bomb on his custom EVH Wolfgang and a rumble from brother Alex, returning to his drum throne.
Al had a solo, too, and punished his four-kick drum Ludwig kit with primal ferocity. Cueing the crowd to clap along, he played to a brassy sample and some jazzy pastiches. Later, Roth noted the Latino influence on Van Halen’s early music.
“There’s a bit of hot sauce in that one!” he noted on “Dance the Night Away.”
“I own a 1961 Mercury low rider,” the singer elaborated, adjusting his blue hoodie. “That’s my everyday shit.”
“We used to line up our low riders with the doors all open, listening to the same radio station. That’s how you did it.”
Ed’s solo bled into the band’s turbocharged take on Kinks hit “You Really Got Me” (just like on record), the Roth set his sights on “Panama.” Encore “Jump” had piped-in keyboards (as did the earlier “I’ll Wait”), but the MTV hit was so festive—and the band so tight—that no one minded.
Just so long as Eddie kept workin’ that guitar.
Warming up for VH was Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the blues guitar whiz who turned heads when he released Ledbetter Heights as a teenager.
Kenny’s played with all the greats since his mid-‘90s debut, from Buddy Guy and B.B. King to Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. The Shrevenport, Louisiana native also moonlights in super-group The Rides with CSN’s Stephen Stills.
Kenny was just in town (Northfield) last month on a double-bill with Jonny Lang. It was nice having him back again so soon, terrorizing his Fender Stratocaster on “Deja Voodoo” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” as bassist Scott Nelson doled out the grooves to Chris “Whipper” Layton’s reliable beats.
That’s right: The Chris Layton, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. How’s that for an added treat?
Cincinnati-bred singer Noah Hunt sounded great on Slim Harpo cover “I’m a King Bee” and Fleetwood Mac oldie “Oh Well,” and occupied himself with a tambourine whenever Shepherd sojourned on a protracted guitar run. Both men clearly love what they do and—like Eddie Van Halen—couldn’t have masked their enjoyment if they tried.
“Reverend” Riley Osbourn (Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett) tickled the ivories on “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” sometimes devoting one hand apiece to his Korg and Yamaha keyboards.
Shepherd reminds us a lot of the late great Stevie Ray—but he’s got Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” down pat, too. Easing his sneaker on a wah-wah pedal, Kenny bent his guitar strings and manipulated his tremolo bar as Hunt envisioned chopping mountains with the edge of his hand.
Kenny’s latest album—2014’s Goin’ Home—is available on Concord Records via iTunes and Amazon.