“Eddie (Van Halen) got you into the building; this is where I sell you the Bibles,” David Lee Roth said deep into Van Halen’s two-hour-long set at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre on Sunday night.
For some, Roth’s description of himself as a hustler working some kind of con might have cut a little too close to the bone. Certainly the showy, swaggering singer knows the art of the deal. But as so often happens once the salesman has skipped town, the quality of the merchandise is found wanting.
On the one hand, the concert was almost everything a longtime Van Halen fan could want, with Roth, the seeming majority favorite among the band’s frontman merry-go-round, on board once again; a generous set list of nearly two dozen songs, curated by bassist Wolfgang Van Halen and featuring a panoply of hits and well-chosen deep cuts, some of which haven’t been performed in decades; and all the guitar and drum heroics anyone could ask for from (respectively) brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen.
And yet … the concert often seemed as if it was two different shows happening in the same space and time; one by the Van Halens, who were pumping out irresistible hard rock/pop metal grooves and breathtaking, turn-on-a-dime instrumental acrobatics all night. And the other by Roth, working his own territory and admittedly, working it very hard — changing costumes, mugging, milking applause, twirling the mic stand, hoofing through some old-school dance moves and even managing a split — no mean feat at age 60.
But Roth’s voice was unwieldy all night. When it was on and his vocals were given close support by Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen, as on “Feel Your Love Tonight” and “Beautiful Girls,” the band seemed like it was at least in the same ZIP code as its late ’70s and early ’80s heyday.
But when he wandered off key, or had no relation to any key whatsoever — “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Dance the Night Away” were particularly egregious examples — things were more problematic.
Worse, there was next to no chemistry or significant interaction between the Van Halens and Roth. They did their show; he did his. And his was sometimes tedious, as when his mid-song stories wandered aimlessly. One, told during “Everybody Wants Some!!” recalled his childhood, when he misbehaved and his parents threatened to “sell him back to the Indians.” Another had something to do with the band playing Mexican weddings in its early days and a low-rider car Roth once owned. Both stories were absolute momentum killers as was his fooling with an acoustic guitar and a bottle of whiskey prior to singing “Ice Cream Man.”
His injection of the “roof is on fire” chant into “Hot for Teacher” felt desperate and dated, kind of like Mitt Romney singing “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Go ahead, Google it and see.
As Roth mentioned, though, it was Eddie Van Halen who probably brought the fans out, and the guitar great didn’t disappoint, casually churning out astonishing leads and offering a solo spotlight that climaxed with his signature instrumental, “Eruption.” Even as Roth’s sizzle fizzled, Eddie Van Halen still managed to deliver the steak.
Opening act Kenny Wayne Shepherd seemed determined to impress as well — so much so that he and his four-piece band took the stage 10 minutes before the scheduled start time, just so they could play a longer set. Each of the seven songs they played spotlighted Shepherd’s virtuosic blues-rock stylings. Especially fine were a pair of B.B. King tunes, “Woke Up This Morning (My Baby’s Gone)” and “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” which the band dedicated to the recently deceased blues master.
Van Halen set list
Light Up the Sky
Runnin’ With the Devil
Everybody Wants Some!!
Drop Dead Legs
Feel Your Love Tonight
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
She’s the Woman
Dance the Night Away
Women in Love
Hot for Teacher
In a Simple Rhyme
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
You Really Got Me