By David Glessner
Special to Austin360/American-Statesman
The not-so-quiet debate surrounding Van Halen’s current tour isn’t whether or not 60-year-old David Lee Roth can still sing (technically, he never could), but rather if he’ll remember the lyrics, sing them in tune and otherwise bother to stay faithful to the songs. On Monday at the Austin360 Amphitheater, the answer was a resounding “more or less.”
Opening with 1979’s “Light Up the Sky,” the band’s namesake guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen, his brother/drummer Alex Van Halen and son/bassist Wolfgang Van Halen hit the ground running with turbocharged precision. Never to be outshone, Roth and his permanently plastered creepy clown smile slid across the powder-dusted stage like some herky-jerky marionette channeling James Brown, Liberace and Popeye. In other words, he’s still Mardi Gras and Fourth of July in a pair of impossibly tight pants (and the proverbial lampshade).
With Roth returning as ringleader, hardcore fans were guaranteed an exclusive set of vintage songs predating his 1985 replacement Sammy Hagar and that other dude from Extreme. In that regard, Monday was a deck of aces as Van Halen uncorked such keg-party staples as “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Hot for Teacher” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” Deep cuts included “Romeo Delight,” “Drop Dead Legs,” “In a Simple Rhyme” and “Dirty Movies.”
By Van Halen standards, the stage production was fairly over-the-counter. Sure, there was the usual NASA-style drum kit, stacks of speakers and flashy back lights, but the presentation was mostly about the music, which was largely uninterrupted by Roth’s (in)famous slapstick banter.
It was also about THAT guitar. Long regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in the world, Eddie Van Halen remains a case study in how’d-he-do-that? Between backhanded wipes of his brow, the sweat-drenched guitar hero wowed the audience with his trademark finger tapping, dizzying fretboard speed and the boyish grin that seems to have regained some glow.
Alex Van Halen’s seemingly obligatory drum solo was impressive enough (and mercifully condensed), and Wolfgang proved to be more than competent handling the chores of ousted bassist Michael Anthony. But alas, it was the Dave-n-Eddie show as Van Halen rolled through “Beautiful Girls,” “Women in Love” and “Ice Cream Man.”
As always, Eddie’s solos stole the show. Grinning ear-to-ear and coaxing applause with his two thumbs-up, the maestro unleashed an electrical storm of squeals, harmonics, speed-picking and ever more fretboard tapping that shrieked to an ear-piercing climax with his 1978 game-changing “Eruption.” Whew!
In the end, Roth went monotone during “Unchained” and “I’ll Wait,” and finally lost the script during “You Really Got Me” and “Panama.” None of that seemed to matter, however, as the crowd went gonzo for his samurai-style mic stand twirls during the closing rush of “Jump.”
Was Roth perfect? Gimme a break! Was Van Halen fun? Absolutely.
It ain’t easy being a guitar hero when Eddie Van Halen’s backstage, but Kenny Wayne Shepherd held his own as the evening’s opening act. Decidedly more bluesy and soulful than Van Halen, the Shreveport native makes no bones about his worship of Stevie Ray Vaughan. How fitting, then, that his drummer is former Vaughan timekeeper and Austin resident Chris “Whipper” Layton, who got a hero’s welcome from the hometown crowd. Another Austin connection, keyboardist Riley Osbourn, spent time in Willie Nelson’s band, and bassist Tony Franklin once played alongside Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers in The Firm. Add the soulful vocals of Noah Hunt on top of string-bending songs like “Blue on Black” and SRV’s “Come On,” and it’s hard to go wrong in Austin.
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