Review: Reborn Van Halen scorches in concert despite faltering lead singer

Van Halen’s new album is called A Different Kind of Truth, but the inescapable truth is this: Once again, Van Halen has trouble with its lead singer.

David Lee Roth fronted the band through its glory years of 1978-1984 before personality conflicts with guitarist Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen led to his ill-fated solo career. Van Halen continued in the mid-’80s with Sammy Hagar and, later, a poorly received and brief Gary Cherone era in the late 1990s.

Now, Roth is back, and the reunion of three-quarters of the original lineup, with Eddie, Alex and Eddie’s 21-year-old son Wolfgang on bass replacing Michael Anthony, led to the release earlier this year of A Different Kind of Truth. The album, the first with Roth in nearly 30 years, was a surprisingly strong effort that reworked material from the group’s earliest demos and proved that the combination of Roth and the Van Halens always made for this band’s best music. Anthony’s vocal harmonies are missed, but as a power trio, the Van Halens impress with instrumental acuity and a bracing concrete-hard wall of sound.

And so it was on the resulting tour, which hit Sunrise’s BankAtlantic Center Tuesday night. Wolfgang isn’t a showman, but his vocal harmonies with his father were clear and strong, and his muscular bass playing was solid enough to hold its own, and accent, Alex’s jackhammer kick drums and Eddie’s dizzying, surround-sound guitar leads. The Van Halens carried the concert and were incredible, especially Alex’s jazz-funk solo and Eddie’s complex tapping and shredding leads on Cathedral/Intruder.

But Roth was embarrassing. No one expects the 57-year-old to move like Jagger, but no one should have expected the once-flamboyant showman to move stiffly like a wax figure on a Lazy Susan. Clearly, for Roth, unlike his seemingly ageless colleagues, it’s not 1984 anymore.

Gone were most of the jumps, kicks and jive-talking cockiness that distinguished the front man in the 1980s. Roth entered the stage on the opening Unchained with a dopey, forced grin and a head-nodding shtick in the deceptive manner of a used car salesman showing off what he knows to be a lot full of lemons. At one point, he condescendingly and lamely paid tribute to Van Halen’s Latin fans by mimicking styles of Latin dance and culture.

The few kicks or splits Roth attempted were executed with little crispness and, unwittingly, he might have created a whole new term: kick-syncing.

Several times during the two-hour show, the IMAX-sized video screen behind the band beamed images of Roth making wide kicks at the same time he was clearly standing still. The visuals were a disappointment, too. At first, the huge black and white live shots and stock footage of the band looked great in striking high-def, but when the imagery failed to change for the remainder of the show it only called into attention how bare bones the production was. The band didn’t even employ a keyboardist to perform the synthesizer parts in Jump, relying on canned music instead.

Roth, unlike too many, at least didn’t lip-sync his vocals. No one would lip-sync to a track of such strained, flat singing. Eddie and Wolfgang’s accompanying harmonies on newer material like The Trouble With Never or oldies like (Oh) Pretty Woman had to cover for Roth’s missed notes.

Worse, he spent too much time raging at the roadies and the house, complaining about blowers. He claimed the blowers were turning the stage into a refrigerator and was wreaking havoc on the vocals. “You’ll have a much better show if they turn those [expletive] blowers off,” he yelled after I’ll Wait, repeating his tirade from a Chicago concert in February.

Later, during fan favorite Panama, he skipped off stage during the song’s most famous part, the rapped breakdown (“Let me reach down between my legs/Ease the seat back.”) Apparently, he chewed someone else out while the band, looking puzzled, was forced to extend the musical section. Roth returned, omitted the rap altogether, and soon barked another gripe at whoever was running the video screens preceding his ragged performance of the half-acoustic Ice Cream Man.

This kind of behavior, when decent seats top $150, is the height of unprofessionalism. If the Van Halens keep Roth on board for another tour, he’ll need to concentrate on his performance instead of yelling at the help.

In an odd pairing , ’70s funk act Kool & the Gang opened and gamely offered a serviceable and lean, 10-song, all-hits set highlighted by Hollywood Swinging.


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