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Review: Van Halen reels in the years at AAC

Posted 8:56am on Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012

David Lee Roth is a fount of one-liners and lewd asides.

It's part of his charm.

But when the wisecracks, non sequiturs and spastic gestures start to overwhelm the other part of his current job -- y'know, singing Van Halen songs -- you might find yourself wishing this current Van Halen tour had (gasp!) reached out to one of the other vocalists to have fronted the group. Heresy, I know, but Roth was really the only element keeping Wednesday night's sold-out American Airlines Center show from achieving greatness.

And it's a shame, because the fellas behind him -- guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen and Eddie's son, bassist Wolfgang -- were absolutely astonishing. Eddie remains one of rock's indisputable legends, a monster on the six-string and full of fire. Alex, along with his nephew, Wolfgang, kept Van Halen's rhythm section airtight. The three men ripped through a two-hour set that was technically flawless, full of explosive power and polished skill. Songs from the Reagan administration have no business sounding (or feeling) as fresh as they did Wednesday.

That left Roth, clad in skin-tight, spangled pants, to throw out head-scratchers like "You either got hot sauce in your veins, ese, or you don't!" and reveal himself as the weak link in this much-anticipated reunion. His voice has lost much of its prime elasticity, leaving him hoarse and yelping, or, more often, just not singing at all.

Roth, with the grace of a dancer and the relentless schtick of a Catskills comic, can still manage to conjure his zany charisma with a few (not-quite-as-high) snap kicks or impromptu mic stand splits, but it frequently felt as though he was working overtime to make sure everyone in the audience was having fun.

Van Halen, absent permanently axed original bassist Michael Anthony but with founding vocalist Roth, released its first new album in 14 years, A Different Kind of Truth, earlier this year. Said record served as an impetus for this reunion tour, which has had its share of suggested friction (although the band has postponed 26 dates past June 26's show in New Orleans, reports indicate the band merely wants a break after 18 months of work) but it didn't seem as if Van Halen was at the breaking point Wednesday.

In fact, all four men seemed delighted to be on stage, racing through classics (Running with the Devil, Hot for Teacher or set opener Unchained) and sprinkling just a handful of Truth throughout the set list. The prevailing mood was one of nostalgia, and that extended to the staging as well: Backed only by a video wall that wouldn't be out of place at Cowboys Stadium, Van Halen kept things stripped down. It was a plainly old-fashioned approach that suited the band's straightforward catalog.

The night was so surprisingly enjoyable -- let's be honest: given the reports beforehand, the bar was a little low -- that Roth's shortcomings only magnified the missed opportunities. His goofy demeanor and rambling asides may be what fans crave, but where it was endearing in the '80s, now simply puts a damper on what should be a flawless victory lap for one of America's defining rock acts.

Openers Kool and the Gang primed the wayback machine with a set full of good cheer. Classics like Jungle Boogie or Celebration had the slowly filling arena dancing in the aisles. The 11-member band wasn't always completely in sync, but the bonhomie it exuded smoothed over any rough spots.

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