TAMPA — For great swaths of 42-year-old white dudes, there is no greater on-again bromance than that of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. So when VH's lead guitarist and lead con man grinned at each other during opener Unchained at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Saturday, 11,903 fans collectively swooned as if the rockers were cuddling on the bow of the Titanic.
Ah, dumb raucous metallic love. Ain't it grand? If this lineup of Van Halen isn't exactly the way the gods intended (Ed's kid Wolfie gamely took over Michael Anthony's bass lines and high harmonies), the quartet proved good enough, and original enough, for two hours of testosterrific pop-rock fireballs.
"How we doing so far?" Roth smirked five minutes in. The crowd roared, and lifted beers, and the mood wouldn't change. You got what you came for: that feel-good link to a time three decades ago when your jeans fit better and concert tees had two less Xs in front of the L.
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After a 50-minute set by unlikely, but admittedly funktastic, openers Kool & the Gang (if your hips didn't hurt after Jungle Boogie, you were doing it wrong), VH casually, if loudly, sauntered onstage, vaguely creepy drummer Alex Van Halen starting things off behind the glowing skins like the Gordon Gekko of time-keeping.
Dressed like a Wild West hairdresser, Diamond Dave slid over dance-recital planks like a shoobie-doobie vaudeville clown. His annoyance level varied, but his vocals weren't as shoddy as feared. (Nice work on I'll Wait, DLR.) He'd exaggerate words rather than bother with high notes now and then, more carnival barker than carnal ringmaster.
But his new patter during Hot for Teacher — "I'm Mr. Roth, I'll be your substitute teacher"; "For our Spanish-speaking students, Panama is down the hall to the left and four songs from now" — was classic Dave. And he gave an altogether earnest talk about, of all things, his farm and his dogs before Ice Cream Man. Have we ever seen the real Roth before? Very cool, very unexpected.
Throughout, the noise was satisfying, and an IMAX-ian video screen helped sell the drama. Plus the boys didn't just come to cash a fat paycheck, although they certainly will. Runnin' With the Devil and Everybody Wants Some!! were given thorough workouts, and the new stuff from album A Different Kind of Truth sounded robust in a live setting, especially She's the Woman, a reworked tune from the old days. Some deeper album cuts — Hear About It Later is my fave VH tune — were dusted off, too.
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Perhaps Eddie, reportedly much healthier than in years past, is so happy now because, in Roth's slow decline, he's become the absolute focal point of the group. His revolutionary tapping style has made him a hero to guitar wonks the world over, but the nerds have a point: At 57, he remains rock's ultimate virtuoso, merging blues and classical riffs and often sounding like 10 men.
I'd never complain about this job, but when you review Van Halen on deadline, it usually means you're cranking out wordplay when Roth & Co. clear the stage and let Eddie uncork his epic end-of-night solo. But this time, I stepped away from my computer in the press box, and just gawked at the speed, the tonal elegance. Darn the consequences: When greatness erupts, you need to stop and watch.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.