Review by Tom James
Fans from across the country and around the world converged on the Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues in Las Vegas this past Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (Jan. 8, 10-11) for David Lee Roth’s first three (3) full solo shows in a decade and a half. Van Halen’s lead singer hadn’t played a concert since the Mighty VH closed out its last North American Tour October 2nd and 4th, 2015 at the Hollywood Bowl. The ensuing four-plus years have been wrought with rumors and speculation about the band’s future.
So as a new decade dawns, instead of letting the clock continue to tick, Diamond Dave is getting off the bench and back in the game with this Las Vegas Residency dubbed “David Lee Roth Rocks Vegas!” which runs through March.. followed by a Special Guest slot on the continuing Kiss farewell tour later in 2020.
His starving devotees swarmed Sin City like the reconvening of an old dusty fraternity, begging for an overdue helping of DLR Thug Pop, dished out by the greatest frontman in the history of the sport. What they ultimately got as a razor-sharp, swaggering Diamond Dave, who can still stop on a dime and ask for change. After a slightly abbreviated 15-song warm-up set Wednesday night, Dave jammed the gas pedal Friday and Saturday for what I can confidently say were among the best live experiences I’ve ever been witness to from our hero. Truth.
It was rewarding to see the show from two different perspectives. Friday night, my friend Dwight Collins and I share d table behind the soundboard as part of the “Panama VIP Package.” It was a straight-on view, without protrusion. On Saturday, we opted for the standing, floor-level general admission tickets for what to me is the only real way to jam out.
Minus most of the martial arts, David is still every bit the showman he was at any point in his 42-year recording career. Bombastic, charming, cool, funny, engaging, all tied together with Vegas-worthy bad-assery. And his backing band is tight, led by Van Halen tribute band guitarist Al Estrada. Ask any of the 1200+ fans inside HOB either night who’s the king of Vegas and they wouldn’t say Elvis. D-Ro muted online, non-attending haters with two shows that left jaws of both hardcore and casual fans on the Mandalay Bay floor. Setlists both Friday and Saturday nights ballooned to 19 face-melting epics, including a harmonica-flavored version of Ice Cream Man. The original 6-pack records were all represented along with a smattering of solo game-winners. Dave dug deeper for the diehards (Mean Street, Big Train, Everybody Wants Some!!) and made sure to please the unwitting wives (California Girls, Gigolo, Just Like Paradise, Jump). He also belted out the blues classic, “Fresh Out,” and shared insight into how the tassels hanging from his microphone previously doubled as both a sword-holder and a leash for his late dog Russell, during their time in Japan some years ago. Of course, Dave remains in impossibly good shape, like he’s been in hardcore 2-a-day training with the girls from Spearmint Rhino (Vegas strip club). And per usual, he never fails to drip with overt enthusiasm, sadly a lost art in American rock n’ roll. In a time when a swelling number of the world’s biggest artists deliver a large percentage of their onstage vocals through taped tracks, it’s important to note David Lee Roth refreshingly keeps it ALL real.
Of course, admittedly never Pavarotti, Dave leaves himself wide open to criticism for his imperfect notes, tendency to talk a lyric, and pension for shuffling verses. Lazy internet trolls who didn’t bother to buy a ticket jumped on that after Wednesday night’s show. Singing is important, of course. But observers who expect Dave to belt out spotless recreations of his records will, sadly, forever miss the point. He is the toastmaster general, storyteller, vibe setter, and ringleader of the Van Halen circus. It’s a place on the map occupied by no other act in history. You either get it or you don’t. It’s only understandable if you’re in the room. Online videos will eternally fail to capture even a hint of the true spirit. But, those in –house were enthralled, uncontrollably raving about the show after the lights went up each night. Additionally, I got stopped over and over by fans in the casino and the airport, who because I wore Roth gear couldn’t wait to talk about how blown away they were to see their life coach in such fine form.
Finally, something else struck me in Vegas. For the first time in nearly 15 years, Dave’s the only alpha on stage, as he’s flanked by a talented but largely unknown band. Even though it might sting periodically for Dave to no longer see Eddie out of the corner of his eye, perhaps a more free-spirited version of himself was on display in this opening weekend.
Whether or not we’re lucky enough to see Van Halen again is very much up in the air. But, if in fact, he is the face of the band moving forward, Dave made a reassuring statement at House of Blues that the VH legacy will be left in committed, able hands.
No official merchandise was sold at the shows. However, Virginia-based folk artist Ken Pease did several paintings of David Lee Roth, exclusively for the “David Lee Roth Rocks Vegas!” residency, which were sold in the gift shop. I bought one of them. Pease regularly paints musicians and sells the works at many House of Blues locations in several states. Check him out on Facebook and visit his website.
Among the international contingent were two (2) separate groups from Australia. One, a couple from Perth, got engaged when Guy Borgia got down on one knee in front of the DLR video screen at the HOB entrance immediately following the Saturday night show and proposed to his high school sweetheart, Nola. They planned to tie the knot the next day at Sin City’s famed Little White Chapel.