By David Menconi
GREENSBORO – Let’s face it, David Lee Roth or Eddie Van Halen would drive you nuts if either of them were in your band. Between rampaging egomania, moody paranoia and high-strung personalities, it would be a nonstop dramafest every single day; kind of like the soap opera that Van Halen has been for the last 30-plus years.
Nevertheless, they need each other because whatever behind-the-scenes unpleasantries are involved, Van Halen’s onstage show is one of the best in the rock world. When it comes to good, stupid Y-chromosome fun, nobody brings it like the Roth model of Van Halen, which was on display Saturday night in Greensboro.
It was an entertaining couple of hours, even though they didn’t seem to be having a particularly good night. Eddie was actually (dare I say it) sloppy in spots. Roth managed to forget the words of “Dance the Night Away,” missing a verse completely. Alex Van Halen’s drum solo lasted three minutes and felt longer. And toward the end of “Pretty Woman,” they bricked a change so bad it made you wince.
But even not hitting on all cylinders, Van Halen puts on a pretty grand arena-rock party. The opening heartbeat-paced fanfare of “Runnin’ With the Devil” is so iconic, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when it did not exist. “Devil” was song number two, and it killed.
Mostly, that was Eddie’s doing. The guy’s playing is a force of nature, and it seems to conjure up a huge serpentine beast come to devour the room. I’ve never heard any musician take up as much sonic space all by himself, a sound you have to hear live to full appreciate; I can only imagine it’s what Jimi Hendrix was like back in the day. “Guitar fireworks” is an overused term, but it definitely applied.
As for Roth, more than ever he comes across like your drunk uncle at a wedding reception – which was actually a lot more charming than it sounds. He’s not a great singer, but he’s a memorable one and a terrific showman. Wearing tight leather pants that left precious little to the imagination, he was gleefully, hilariously profane in word and gesture. And even pushing 60, he still pulled off the high leg kicks (though not quite as many as in his ’80s-vintage prime).
Saturday’s show commenced with an hour-long set by venerable r&b hitmakers Kool & the Gang, a seemingly curious opening-act choice. But they were good fun, 10-strong onstage, reminding everyone who they were with “Jungle Boogie,” “Too Hot” and of course “Celebration.” Unfortunately, the crowd stayed outside in droves, which was too bad for them.
“You didn’t know Kool & the Gang was a [expletive] religion to us, did you?!” Roth asked later.
Once Van Halen got going, they played two-dozen songs focused on the group’s early-’80s glory days. The four new songs from this year’s “A Different Kind of Truth” were somewhere between o.k. and meh, but those golden oldies are just as fierce as they ever were.
“Hot for Teacher,” “Panama” and “Beautiful Girls” rocked the noble-savage rock comedy just as hard as ever. And at the end, Eddie and Diamond Dave hugged.
Maybe they even meant it.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat