Crazy from the heat: Van Halen’s odd detour

by Ryan Snyder

“Panama” didn’t come until the very end of Van Halen’s set Saturday night at the Greensboro Coliseum, but judging from the temperature inside the building, its ambiance was a long time in the making. Three days, in fact, as one coliseum employee suggested that it was mandated by Van Halen — a band with a long history of the most peculiar rider stipulations — that the air conditioning not be on when they arrived, lest they reserve the right to cancel their performance. So it was hot inside. The kind of hot that you only find in a Central American republic. The kind of hot that comes from more than 10,000 people in rain-soaked clothes radiating cheap American beer from their pores. The kind of hot that puts you to sleep in an afternoon calculus class, though no one was in danger of dozing off in this classroom, however, at least not while the David Lee Roth circus was in rare form onstage.

Maybe it’s the inherent unpredictability of Van Halen, but their Greensboro dates rarely happen without something going awry. The 2004 show was the leadoff to a particularly nasty stretch of drinking by Eddie Van Halen that clearly slogged his hyperkinetic fingerwork. The 2007 show was notorious for that tour’s most egregious instance of technical failure: a woefully out-of-tune “Jump” encore caused by runaway backing tracks. This time around, the flux was manmade.

Eddie appeared healthy and near peak form this time around, but also inventive in his spotlight-grabbing moments. Wolfgang was noticeably sturdier and more reserved in his sophomore tour, but still has yet to acquire the gumption to be much more than a highly serviceable pacekeeper. The show’s concept itself felt gimmicky and stunted. There was a large square of parquet flooring that looked straight out of Boston Garden that DLR used as the catalyst for the shakes, shimmies and roundhouse kicks that invariably ended up as triplicate motion capture on the gigantic LCD screen behind him. They looked more athletic in the slow-mo quick cuts than they appeared, and the dancing fool in the B-roll manicured to look like DLR wasn’t fooling anyone.

At age 57, Roth is decades past being the stuntman-who-also-happensto-be-a-lead-singer, but his volatility remains intact, if not exacerbated.

Thing is, his diminished vocal and gymnastic skills make that other part of his shtick feel asinine, if not altogether tragic. The pithy nuggets of wisdom he employed to move songs along (“Is there an Americatown in China? I’ve always wondered.”) were mostly tolerable, if slightly obtuse.

One has to think that the positioning of the non sequitur, “Selective amnesia is only a heartbeat away” in the middle of new cut “The Trouble with Never” was a coy reference to the set’s disavowal of all songs Hagar.

Though the high notes often escaped him, DLR’s voice was strong and clear throughout the first two acts, fading tremendously toward the end as he opted to speak parts of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Girl Gone Bad.” He applied his limitations effectively, however, expertly skating across Eddie and Wolfgang’s harmonies on “Beautiful Girls” and rendering the solo “Ice Cream Man” with a subtle bluesiness of spoken-word night before it erupted into a full-band onslaught. Some of the missed cues resulted in awkward dead space, like the disembodied vocal tracks revealed to be humming softly in the mix during “Hot for Teacher.” Other snafus were more egregious. “I lost my place. F**k it. Quickly, to the chorus!,” he exclaimed midway through “Dance the Night Away.”

Of course, when he couldn’t remember lyrics, he’d simply improvise.

There was a shockingly candid moment during “Women In Love” when DLR stole the thunder from EVH’s rippling solo, speaking directly to one point stage left. “By God, I will f**king stare at you right back in the eye, motherf**ker. Yeah!” he shouted alternating between crossed arms, slapping himself in the face, pointing emphatically and wagging his crotch in this person’s general direction, all while sporting a winning smile.

“You want to make a staredown, stare me in the face?” he asked. “F**k you. F**k you.”

Opinions were split over whether the exchange was directed at a surly sound tech, or stone-faced ticket holders who refused to disengage eye contact with DLR or assume the slightest bit of enthusiasm. A Tweet to the tech in question inquiring into whether he was the recipient of the tirade was met with a declarative “not at all.” Whatever happened, happened.

If Roth is the Kirk of this ship, boldly going where no performer should go, Eddie Van Halen was its Spock, its logic center. He’s still fully deserving of his status among the shredder elite. So much sound comes from one man that it’s easy to forget he’s doing it by himself. It’s led to him being undervalued as a rhythm guitarist, holding down titanic grooves constructed of a latticework of notes when the songs demand it. His volume knob was like a conductor’s wand, loosening huge swells from the orchestra in his fingertips and hushing them just as quickly. If only it could have commanded his front man in a similar fashion who, like many, probably let the heat get the best of them.

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