NEW YORK — A grinning David Lee Roth stood at center stage at Madison Square Garden, his red handkerchief aflutter. He was the matador and guitarist Eddie Van Halen was the raging bull. Moments later, he was peering over Eddie’s shoulder as if he were a schoolroom cheat and the answers to the science test were printed on Van Halen’s fretboard. Then he spun away, hands in the air, as proud as a parent with a prize-winning son.
Roth perfected this dance in the early ’80s. For almost a quarter-century, he didn’t get to do it: He left Van Halen for a solo career in 1985 and the group carried on without him. But he is now back, and the latest Van Halen tour, timed to support “A Different Kind of Truth” — the band’s first album with Roth in decades — is suffused with the joy of a thing put right. Diamond Dave is back where he belongs, and when he asked the capacity crowd to exercise some selective amnesia, they were happy to comply.
In the years following Roth’s departure, the band continued churning out hits. None were in Tuesday’s set. Instead, the band charged gleefully through nearly two hours of selections from its first six albums, with a sprinkling of material from “Truth.” The new songs, built from demos left over from early sessions, fit in fine alongside hard rock evergreens like “Running With the Devil,” “Unchained” and “Beautiful Girls.” Even “Tattoo,” the rote new single, sprang to life. The pulverizing “China Town,” another platform for Eddie Van Halen’s fantasia, was a concert highlight marred only by Roth’s silly pantomime of a servile Asian stereotype.
Roth, 56, is a bit like grenadine: sticky and syrupy, and certainly not something you’d want to consume straight. But he can make an intoxicating mixture brighter and sweeter. The prancing, hyperactive lead singer was born for the stage — had he not become a hard rock frontman, he would have made an outstanding circus clown. His greatest talent, however, is coaxing the best out of musicians with the Van Halen surname. At the Garden, there were three of them: the sorcerous Eddie, 57; his brother Alex, 58, a drummer of tremendous power and precision; and Eddie’s capable son Wolfgang, 20, who has taken over for Michael Anthony as the group’s bassist. Like many long-running firms, Van Halen has become a family business, with Roth as the hired CEO giving the concern with its public face and pushing the team to choose risk over complacency.
Eddie Van Halen remains one of the miraculous musicians of the past 40 years. Much of what he can accomplish with a six-string defies explanation. Not only can he switch between rhythm and lead parts so deftly that it seems like he’s playing both simultaneously, he can simulate the sound of a classical string section, a forest full of insects and tree frogs, or a helicopter crash. His instrument sounds like it was strung with live wires — if it started smoking or shooting off sparks as he played, no one would be surprised. His style has been imitated by so many hard rockers, it’s amazing he still has the capacity to astonish. But astonish he does and he does it effortlessly, with an imaginative faculty that never takes a measure off.
“Eruption,” the exercise in fretboard-tapping that has become a metal cliché rehashed by a thousand guitar-store clerks, was a revelation in the hands of its originator on Tuesday. Most hard rock guitar solos are indulgent. Eddie’s could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would have minded.
With his black clothing and slightly disaffected stance, Wolfgang looks like an alt-rocker, but he discharged Anthony’s parts — and the high backing vocals that are an underappreciated component of the Van Halen sound — with confidence and a few pleasing embellishments of his own.
Alex is nearly as imitated as his famous brother. As inspiring as the frenetic double-bass part on “Hot for Teacher” or the menacing rolls on “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” are on record, watching Alex hammer out those beats in concert is a deeper pleasure.
As for Roth, his voice is not the supple instrument it once was. His performance of “Jump” was mostly an enthusiastic guess. But even in his prime, Roth was never the most accurate or mellifluous singer.
He made up for his deficiencies with his sense of humor, his theatrical style and his perpetual delight. Those were always crucial parts of Van Halen’s personality and kept the band from falling into the self-serious trap that ensnared many of its peers.
Time has not dented Roth’s showmanship, although the years have softened his stance. In the ’80s, he was a font of sexuality and danger; these days, he’s more goofy than salacious. It didn’t matter much: Van Halen was Van Halen again, and that was a gift that only Roth could give.
It wasn’t his only gift. Roth enlisted Kool and the Gang to open the show. On paper, this was a head-scratcher: What did the Jersey City funk-pop stalwarts have to do with Van Halen?
More than a bit, as it turned out. Roth, frontman of a great party band, recognizes another great party band when he sees it. In a 50-minute opening set, the 11-piece combo swept through 30 years of music history, encompassing hard-grooving disco-soul (“Ladies Night”), raw funk (“Jungle Boogie”), cheesy but wonderful ’80s dance classics (“Celebration”), guitar rock (“Misled”) and even a little hip-hop. Some Van Halen fans were skeptical at first, but by the time Robert “Kool” Bell locked into the bass strut on “Hollywood Shuffle,” they were swaying in their seats. By “Get Down on It,” many were dancing.