- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

So this is what it’s come to for fans of Van Halen: watching the band’s once beloved frontman, David Lee Roth, trot out old standards with a glorified cover band and fling himself around the stage with acrobatic abandon.

That’s pretty much the sum total of Mr. Roth’s performance Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club.

And boy was it entertaining.

True, the show, with the exception of solo tunes “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” shamelessly pandered to a loyal corps of Van Halen enthusiasts who deserve better treatment.

Now basically defunct, the band has squandered what credibility it had left after an embarrassing break with Mr. Roth’s replacement, Sammy Hagar, that led to 1998’s disastrous “Van Halen III” album, a collaboration with vocalist Gary Cherone.

Was Mr. Hagar fired, or did he quit?

Other questions linger: Did the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex, promise Mr. Roth his old job when he recorded a couple of tracks for a mid-‘90s greatest-hits collection? Or was it just a trial run?

Adding to all the mysterious infighting and squabbling, Mr. Roth and Mr. Hagar — no love lost between those two — decided to link up for a joint tour last summer, a transparent bid to rake in cash from pent-up demand for the real Van Halen.

Then, last December, Mr. Roth sued his former band mates, claiming they were hoarding money from a deal they had struck with Warner Bros. in 1996 that increased royalties on the band’s back catalog.

Despite all the bad vibes of Van Halen’s recent history, it was simply impossible Tuesday night to deny the power of the pioneering pop-metal band’s catchy midperiod hits — “Panama,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Jump,” “Hot for Teacher” — and such less polished early gems as “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

Surprisingly, the show failed to sell out, even with the help of the VH1 network’s national promotion machine. I assumed that at least 900 Van Halen fanatics would show, if only out of curiosity or abject nostalgia. I was wrong: Fewer than 600 tickets were sold.

“A sad day for us,” lamented one middle-aged Van Halen fan in discussing the low sales with a friend.

Mr. Roth seemed undaunted, his arena-size ego content to soak up the adulation of what, by his standards, was a tiny crowd.

He’s nothing if not the consummate showman — an always engaging combination of Robert Plant’s open-shirted sexuality, Mick Jagger’s rubbery grooving and Frank Sinatra’s lounge-lizard hamming.

At 47, Mr. Roth is also surprisingly fit and limber. He did take frequent sips from a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon whiskey, which may have numbed any soreness. During an instrumental interlude, Mr. Roth stole away to the side of the stage and traded tokes on an unidentified lighted object with a roadie.

I’ll leave it to you, sophisticated reader, to speculate.

Whatever chemical aid he may or may not have received, the flamboyant singer came out kicking and screaming — literally.

His receding hair is a chemical-laden platinum blond, and the screeching Mr. Roth performed more reverse-spin jump kicks than I cared to count; he’s a virtual one-man Cirque du Soleil.

Can he still sing, in between screeches? I don’t know — who could hear anything above the din of the squealing, animalistic guitar solos coming from multiple stacks of amplifier cabinets and the pounding of two bass drums, each with a pair of microphones jammed inside their heads?

I was lucky to leave Tuesday night with the fillings in my teeth intact.

Toward the end of the show, though, Mr. Roth did something refreshing. He dismissed his band and picked up an acoustic guitar in a nonstandard tuning that blues players love to use. Before launching into the stripped-down introduction to “Ice Cream Man,” he told a story about how his father gave him his first lesson in Kool-Aid-stand marketing.

Yes, it was an ironic play on the kind of homilies with which Bruce Springsteen used to introduce his songs, but hearing him play by himself and relay that cheeky story was a sign that there’s a real person inside the plastic action figure that is David Lee Roth.

Then the band came back, midchorus, and the human moment was gone.

As fun as Mr. Roth’s nothing-succeeds-like-excess persona is, at what point does it all become a self-parody? How long will it be before Van Halenites simply refuse to show up?

The question for fans of the legendary band: Is a quarter of a loaf better than nothing?

For now, it seems the answer is yes — but surely not for too much longer.

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