The Wells Fargo Center was sold out Monday for Van Halen. The band was about to play “Tattoo” – the lead track from its strong new album A Different Kind of Truth, its first in 28 years with original singer David Lee Roth.
So Roth introduced the song with a rap about two of his own tattoos.
On his left hip, he said, he has a tattoo with the phrase stay frosty. On the right hip, the outline of a .45 pistol.
“Kind of a yin-yang thing,” he said.
He could well have been talking about the classic Van Halen dynamic.
There’s the Van Halen brothers, Eddie on guitar and Alex on drums. They put in their 10,000 hours playing weddings with their father, Jan Van Halen – a jazz clarinetist – then on to bars and eventually stadiums.
They’re craftsmen with a capital C. And as rock guitarists go, Eddie’s a dive-bombing, finger-tapping innovator, still ridiculously on top of his game, as he proved Monday.
Roth, too, put in his 10,000 hours. But he’s always been more of a flamboyant song and dance man than a craftsman. In leather pants, newsboy cap, scarves, and flashy jackets he looked like an undercover cop posing as a hipster trying to infiltrate an ecstasy ring. He’s concerned less with getting his lines exactly right or hitting his notes, and more with getting the feeling across, and delivering his patented leg kick (yup, he still does ’em) on the beat.
These approaches are complementary – if famously combustible – opposites. And for most of Monday’s 22-song, nearly two-hour show – so packed the band barely came up for air between numbers – that complementary opposite dynamic jelled.
Not from the jump, though. Roth flubbed some lines trying to scat his way through set opener “Unchained” and new songs “She’s the Woman” and “China Town.” And anything in his upper register was a dicey proposition. To adapt an old Roth quip, he was “murder on the high Cs” at times.
But for the purposes of Van Halen’s music, Roth’s ravaged rasp is still useful. It suited the talkin’-blues-into-full-bore-boogie of “Ice Cream Man” (introduced with a classic Rothian non sequitur: a video of Roth herding dogs at work). Shielded by the choirboy harmonies of Eddie and his 20-year-old son Wolfgang (replacing original bassist/backing vocalist Michael Anthony), he delivered on songs like “Dance the Night Away,” “Hear About it Later,” and “Women in Love,” relying on style more than technique.
Those latter two tracks, among a handful of deep cuts the band played, were the most transcendent moments of the show. They thrilled the graying dudes in the crowd – out on a Monday night for the first time in who knows how long, and air-shredding along with Eddie to warp-speed shuffle “The Full Bug.”
And such tracks especially suited the band.
Eddie Van Halen was perpetually smiling even when Roth botched his lines. Eddie’s exuberance was palpable when the band nailed all the stops, starts, and syncopations in the galloping “Girl Gone Bad.”
Dropped lines, variable-pitch delivery, and all, there’s still no better ringleader for an arena rock circus than Roth. He’s unafraid to go back to well-visited places, and also bold enough to adapt older material, as when he reworked the spoken-word sections of “Hot For Teacher,” playing a chocolate-peddling substitute teacher. And when a song called for attitude and comic vamping over perfect pitch, Roth seemed much more comfortable and proved why he’s arguably the best front man in rock history.