Van Halen Couldn't Live Without David Lee Roth's Hot Mess Insanity at Gexa
David Lee Roth soaked up every minute of attention with Van Halen at Gexa on Wednesday.
With Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
In the middle of a 10-minute-long "How to Dance Like David Lee Roth" monologue Wednesday night at Gexa Energy Pavilion, Roth got serious for a minute. Sort of. Having walked the crowd through his James Brown and stair-stepping moves, the Van Halen singer got to the "white boy" ones, including his favorite, the Full Jesus. Arms outstretched, he threw his head back and then looked ahead again to make (creepy) eye contact with the audience.
"Thank you, God, for this job," Roth said, explaining what goes through his head whenever he does the Full Jesus. "It's the best one, by far, that I've ever had."
When the Van Halen brothers let him have it, that is, which was one of the underlying themes (and one of Roth's favorite jokes) of the show last night. These days the band is 3/4 Van Halens, with brothers Eddie and Alex now joined by Eddie's son Wolfgang. It's a family band (Wolfgang's bass is even painted to mimic Eddie's guitar) that cycles through whichever vocalist they can tolerate at the time — or whichever period of songs they feel like playing most.
But it was hard to take your eyes off Roth, who really does have a sweet gig. He didn't even do that much singing; during "Dirty Movies," he straight-up forgot the lyrics. Most of the hooks were actually sung by the band, while Roth focused on his yelps and barks and, well, being David Lee Roth, the manic hot mess and Barnum and Bailey freak show act.
There was a lot of mugging and miming for the audience, a lot of strutting and costume changes, and a whole hell of a lot of microphone stand shtick — including twirling it like a baton, swinging it like a golf club and aiming it like a gun at Eddie. You could almost hear Alex's teeth gnashing over the music as he watched it all from behind his drum kit.
For the first part of the set, Roth seemed like he might be on good behavior, but then came "Dance the Night Away." As the precursor to his dance lesson, Roth told a rambling story about the band's "Spanish influence." That segued into a tutorial on sticking a pack of Kool cigarettes (and water-filled condoms) on the bumper of a lowrider to scrape the ground with while bumping 808s. (Follow that?) It was like listening to a crazy uncle, and Roth seemed ready to veer into a racist punchline at any moment but, thankfully, didn't keep the thread long enough to get to it.
From there, flashing lopsided grin after lopsided grin as he ran his hand through his disheveled hair, Roth was in his element. At one point he openly flirted with a young woman in the front row, quipping, "You look familiar. Do I know your mother?" (which surprisingly few people groaned at). He broke into "The Roof Is on Fire" in the middle of "Hot for Teacher" and joked about parents letting their children buy ice cream from him (which people did groan at). When he pulled out a chair for "Ice Cream Man," it seemed more than likely that a jazz dance routine would follow.
All the while, Roth's gaunt, haggard face looked much worse for the wear. We might call it "Say Hello to My Little Friend" syndrome: Though he was dead on his feet, all the drugs Roth has put in his body over the years have managed to keep him upright, and he carries on as if nothing is the matter. Eddie got lucky when he was forced to quit drinking all those years ago.
Speaking of which, Eddie was as sharp as ever, his acrobatic guitar work crisp, clean and dazzling. Not that he was trying to show off: In keeping with his dad-approved goatee, he sported a plain white T-shirt and mostly stood in place, ripping off solos with an occasional smile or "oh" face. He and the rest of the band did their best to hit their marks and pretend everything around them was perfectly normal.
Except that it's not quite that simple. During the encore, Eddie got his chance to take center stage with a lengthy solo that weaved in and out of "Eruption." It was a technical marvel loaded with a flurry of finger taps, feedback and crazy effects, but it would have seemed more at home in a Guitar Center than on a stage. Still, the fans — mostly dudes — cheered him on. Roth's act might get old after a while, but so can the rest of the band's shows without him.
That's the thing: For all the singers Van Halen has gone through — including the inferior Sammy Hagar and the forgettable Gary Cherone — they need Roth, just as he needs them. Eddie's guitar playing, though nothing short of innovative, is so off-the-wall that this band could never play it straight. Somehow Roth makes it all make sense. It was apt, then, that when the band returned for "You Really Got Me" Eddie became young again, dropping to the ground at Roth's feet and shredding away like it was 1984 all over again.
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